Getting your shadows right contributes immensely to being able to create a feeling of form, light and depth in your work.
Shadows do seem to be particularly vexing for a lot of realist artists. But they really don’t have to be. If you put into practice what I’m going to show you in this blog post, you will never struggle with shadows again. I mean it.
Myths you need to avoid
You need to get rid of the erroneous ideas you find on forums and, unfortunately, in the teaching of some realist artists. Get rid of them. They’re holding you back.
The most common ones I hear are:
- Paint light areas cool and shadows warm. Sure, that’s true a lot of the time, but not all the time. Following a recipe might get you through making a nice dinner a lot of the time. But if you understand what the ingredients contribute, how they interact, you can create. Learn how colour and light behave, and you won’t need to follow any recipes. It’s not even hard to do. Everything you need is in this blog post.
- Paint shadows the same colour as the background. No, that’s just wrong. Don’t do it. Shadows are not the same colour as the background. Paint them the colour they are.
- Shadows should be painted translucent. Sure that will work fine. But only if you get the colour right. If you don’t, it won’t matter whether you paint them translucent or opaque, they won’t look right and your work will suffer. Paint them the right colour, and it won’t matter if they’re opaque or translucent, they will look right.
How to get shadows right
If you remember this simple rule you’ll manage to avoid all the misinformation there is out there about the colour of shadows. In fact, you’ll avoid all the misinformation about colour and form in general:
Given a single local colour, the hue of an object will stay the same from light to shadow.
That’s it. The value and the chroma will change across the surface, but the hue will hardly change at all. Yes, there can be some minor change in hue, but you need to get the broad picture right before you start fussing with the details, and hue change is a detail you don’t need to fuss with until you can get colour broadly right.
Here’s how this looks in practice: All the colours of the sphere below are of the same hue, they’re all the same orange. In Munsell terms, they’re all 5YR – a middle Yellow Red. Only the value and the chroma change.
You can actually plot these colours on a page of the Munsell book, and they always describe a curve. Here’s another, similar study, with a different local colour. The hue of this one is 5PB – a middle purple-blue, in Munsell.
Here is the curve that shows the colours of each broad area of that sphere:
Every colour I need to paint that sphere is somewhere on that curve. Some of the colours will be between the chips, sure. But they will all be on that curve.
Here are the shadow areas of that sphere with the colours from the curve that they relate to:
It really is that simple. Get those colours right and your form will live. Here’s the sphere again with all the modelling factors filled in with the right colours, before blending:
The point I want you to get here is that the shadow colours are the same hue as the rest of the sphere. Only the value and the chroma change.
If you get those broad areas right – they’re called the modelling factors, because they help you to model form – then you can paint convincing form. You won’t struggle with the colour of shadows. You won’t struggle with the colour of lights. In fact, you won’t struggle with colour at all.
I used exactly this method to get the colours of the shadows right in the following two paintings. In shape and in hue, the subjects are not so very different from the orange sphere above.
So if you’re wondering how this rather abstract exercise – painting a sphere of a single hue – relates to the real word of making paintings, here it is.
This process is exactly the same whatever you’re painting. This rule applies whatever your subject. Of course there are situations in which the subject is much more complex.
By doing an exercise like this, you simplify the problem, which helps you learn more quickly. What you learn from this type of practice applies to everything you do, and makes an immediate difference to how well you paint.
If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to try it.
Watch this webinar and find out how to do it for yourself
In January I gave a live webinar in which I went through all this in a lot more detail. It’s about an hour long, and I paint a couple of demos live to demonstrate exactly what I’m talking about here.
It’s not particularly complicated to do the stuff I’m demonstrating in that webinar. And If you do it, you’ll make more progress towards painting more realistic shadows than you will by spending endless hours thrashing around in the dark, following erroneous advice and incorrect rules of thumb.
Please, pick up these tools and use them
This stuff isn’t hard. It really isn’t. What makes it hard is the sheer weight of bad advice out there, perpetrated by well meaning people with unfortunately mistaken ideas, mostly ideas that they’ve picked up from other well meaning but mistaken people, and so it goes on.
You don’t have to take anybody else’s word for it, you can figure it out for yourself. I’m not asking you to take my word for it.
What I am doing, in the webinar above, is giving you the tools to find out the truth for yourself, and I’m asking you to take those tools and use them.
Because if you do that, you’ll save yourself untold amounts of wasted time, you’ll make immediate progress in your understanding of colour, light and form, and you’ll be able to paint shadows that look real.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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