In this article I will be covering the subject of painting shadows. Why they are important, some key points about them you may not have thought of, and how to paint them.

Painting shadows, watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright
Painting shadows, watercolor painting by Joe Cartwright

These topics mostly apply to painting shadows in general, though there are one or two that only apply to watercolor painting.

Shadows can be difficult for new artists to paint.

Often it is because they get the subjects of reflections and shadows mixed up.

Other times it is just because shadows have a lot to know about them.

Also, as shadows are often the last stage of a painting, especially a watercolor painting, they worry about ruining their good work.

Here are some reasons why shadows are important.

  • Firstly, they connect objects to the ground.
    • Without a shadow, objects like trees, figures, buildings and cows, can look like they are disconnected from the land beneath them.
  • Shadows connect shapes.
    • Isolated shapes can be combined into a more pleasing shape by using shadows.
  • They can make simple shapes more interesting.
    • A tree will look better with a shadow under it.
  • They can create light in a painting.
    • A dark shadow next to a light shape will make your painting appear to have more light in it.
  • And, shadows help direct the viewer’s eyes around your artwork.

First let us clear up the difference between shadows and reflections.

People often refer to shadows when they really mean reflections and vice versa.

The key point to remember is that shadows are away from the light, while reflections are always towards the viewer – usually painted as straight down your paper.

So how do we paint shadows?

First let us look at the color of shadows.

They always have some of the native color of the object that they lay on.

For instance, if the shadow is on grass, it will have some grass color as part of it. However, the color will not be as bright as it is in full light.

Other colors will also be present, and it may also be changed by reflected and projected lights.

For instance. Why do shadows often have blue in them?

If there is a blue sky above the shadow the blue light modifies the shadow color.

However, in the case of a grey overcast sky the shadow will lean towards that color and not blue or violet.

If you have colorful objects next to one and other, e.g., an orange or lemon next to a white vase or on a white tabletop. Some of the light that hits the fruit will reflect into their shadow.  

Another example is where bright colored sunlit buildings will reflect light into shadow areas.

Now let us look at the various edges of shadows.

They are rarely sharp edged, though they can appear sharp from a distance.

Even a shadow cast by a solid object such as a lamp post gets softer as it moves away from the post. This effect is called diffraction.

Shadows help create the form of an object, such as a body or a head. These shadows are soft edged.  While cast shadows have a more defined edge.

When painting shadows their tone is very important.

The laws of atmospheric perspective also apply to them.

This means that shadows of distant objects are lighter and duller than those of similar objects that are closer to the viewer. For instance, trees in the distance have lighter and duller shadows than the same trees in the foreground.

Filtered light, such as that produced when light passes through leaves, will create lighter shadows.

While darker shadows are caused by more solid objects.

Shadows are very important for creating light in our paintings.

On an overcast day, they are very light and indistinct. While on a bright sunny day they are more sharply defined and darker relative to their surroundings.

Shadows under objects are usually darker as they are not lit by light from the sky. For example, the shadow under a car is darker than the shadow cast by the car blocking light to its side.

Painting shadows on grass using the information I have already covered.

The edges of shadows on the ground, especially on grass, are never a straight edge. They will have a variety of edges from sharp to soft.

Grasses and other plants at the edge of the shadow will have some parts in shade and others in light.

Also, within the shadow area some edges will be sharper, and others are softer.

In a rural landscape, these effects are partly due to shadows being created by a mix of solid branches, semi-transparent leaves, gaps within the foliage, and to the variations on the ground itself. It might have patches of bare ground mixed with grasses of different heights and colors. There may also be rocks on the ground. Wind blowing through tree foliage and diffraction will also soften some of these edges.

To create this soft edged effect, I randomly wet the foreground area with dabs of water before laying down the shadow. This will give shadows more variation of edge and tone. When the brush hits a pre-wet area, a soft edge will be created which is also lighter in tone as the water on the paper will dilute the mixture on the brush.

Dabbing water prior to painting shadows on my watercolor painting
Dabbing water prior to painting shadows on my watercolor painting.

I also make use of dry brush strokes to add another edge element. Dry brush strokes are not as defined as a solid sharp edge but are more definite than a wet-on-wet passage.

As artists we use these edge variations to create more interesting visual effects for our viewers.  Dry-brush strokes and soft wet-on-wet passages help the viewer connect with our work by adding their own perception of what these shapes mean. Think about people looking at clouds, some may see a rabbit while others see something different.

While the shadow is wet, I often splatter some paint of varying tone and color to make the shadow even more interesting.

Of course, I also place some sharp edges to represent blades of grass, or shadows on smooth bare earth.

Even a few rocks in shadows can help.

Remember, as artists one of our jobs is to create a visual feast for the eyes!

Here are another couple of tips for painting shadows on figures.

Without shadows figures will look flat.

Soft shadows are caused when light falls directly on a curved portion of a face. While cast shadows are produced when an object, like a nose or eyebrow, blocks the light and casts a shadow on another part of the face.

A final point to keep in mind is that shadows of a person or animal walking or running will touch the foot that is touching the ground, but not one that is moving above it.

I hope this article has given you more insight into why shadows are so important and how you can paint them in a more interesting manner.

This article is based on my YouTube video of the same title. Here is the link to that video if you would like to watch it.

The video is part of my online free beginner watercolor class. You can see the full list on this site: Free watercolor lessons

If you would like to see more of my videos you can have a look at my YouTube Channel.