Creating Effective Shadows
By Charles Sovek
The Artist's Magazine - November, 1991
How to use the shapes of shadows to dramatize mood, define form and improve design.
Ever try to catch a shadow? It may be a silly game for children, but for the artist it's serious business. The way you use shadows plays a big part in determining the success or failure of a picture. The silhouette of an apple resting on a windowsill, for example, can be depicted either as a dark shape against a light-filled window or, if at night, a light shape against a darkened window. Each could be a possible subject for a picture. Whatever the mood or composition, it's the shadows that usually dictate the foundation of the painting.
The best way to think of a shadow is as a temporary illusion. Temporary because the slightest repositioning of a lamp or movement of the sun instantly alters the effect and creates another. An illusion because, being strictly visual, a shadow is impossible to touch. That's why it's important to momentarily disregard the form and color of an object and focus entirely on its light and dark aspects.
Study the still life painting below, along with the accompanying diagram. Notice how it's the shapes of the shadows rather than the forms that make the composition interesting. I arrived at this particular arrangement of shadow shapes by using a strong back light. Now study the diagram and notice how the forms are easily readable even though the sketch is nothing but black silhouettes on white paper.
When painting the actual picture, I was careful to maintain the integrity of these shapes. Because only a few passages of light strike the rims of the objects, practically all the modeling was limited to the shadows. I was careful, however, to resist the temptation to overstate some of the more obvious reflected lights that broke up the unity of the shadows. Instead, I kept my modeling tones limited to the middle gray-to-black range of the value scale.
Within the first 15 minutes of Still Life with Geraniums, Fruit and Cups (oil, 14 x 18), I had the shapes of the shadows established. I added only enough modeling to give the objects solidity. In the black-and-white shadow diagram (above), notice the vitality this arrangement of flat shapes displays.
CHOOSING THE LIGHT SOURCE
How you light a subject is just as important as what you're painting. Manet summed it up when he said, "The real center of interest in a painting should be the light, not the objects." The same can be said for shadows.
Reducing the countless number of possible lighting directions to back light, front light, top light and side light helps our understanding of shadows. Each condition incorporates shadows, but some more than others.
Since the value patterns created by shadows change under different lighting conditions, you should experiment to find the best one for your subject
In the demonstrations above, front light (A) tends to bathe a subject in light, generally creating the least desirable effect because the shadows are usually thin, fragmented-looking shapes found only on the edges of objects. Back light (B), on the other hand, is an ideal condition because it can turn even the most complex arrangement of forms into silhouette-like shapes.
Top light (C) can be effective for certain subjects so long as the forms are descriptive. Shadows cast from objects under this condition usually appear as sparse, halo-like shapes hovering around the base of the form. Edward Hopper made great use of top light in his evocative renditions of lighthouses on deserted shorelines. Side light (D) is probably the most popular of all because it not only casts long, horizontally descriptive shadows, but it leaves enough of the light passages intact to set up a pleasing contrast. Notice how each condition gives the subject a distinct mood. Trying different lighting effects on the same subject can be an excellent way to explore your options and decide which condition best suits your pictorial needs.
DESIGNING WITH SHADOWS
Once you understand how shadows work, you can begin to focus on design. This means taking the existing shape of a shadow and refashioning it into a custom design element.
A good rule of thumb here is to either play a lot of shadow against a little bit of light or vice versa; you want to avoid an equal distribution of both. Notice in my painting and sketch of a house (page 16) that, except for the rooftop and a sprinkling of light on the trees, bushes and lawn, everything else is completely immersed in shadow.
The sun-struck rooftop in Southern Comfort (oil, 14 x 18) becomes an abstract shape In the composition, contrasting with all the shadowed passages around it. Even in my simple sketch (right), notice how the rooftop conveys a feeling of bright sunlight Without the shadow patterns, the effect would be far less dramatic.
What can be magical about this kind of tonal arrangement is that even if a white object - in this case, the white building - is painted gray, it can still read as a white building in shadow. This is because a shadow will lower even the whitest of objects to a deeper value. If a white form is reduced to a middle gray, darker forms such as the shrubs, grass, tree and shutters will be painted even darker. The contrast of these darker shadows against the middle-gray shadow of the white building helps the middle gray read as white in shadow.
An excellent exercise for learning how to design different patterns of light and shadow is to sketch a few preliminaries of the subject with a single black value (similar to the ones I've done). Working boldly on top of a very simple preliminary drawing, lay in the most obvious shadow patterns. Use a big brush and go for the big masses rather then the finicky details.
As you develop the sketch, try to forget what you're drawing and concentrate on making an interesting design. If this means repositioning the shadow cast from a tree to better serve the composition, do it. If a cluster of bushes looks too busy beside an ornately carved door, choose the most interesting set of shapes and simplify the others. Even if the shadows are lopsided or distorted, your sketch will probably be more gutsy than if you record everything accurately yet are indiscriminate about your selection of shapes.
Most students can grasp the idea of using shadow shapes to define a still life or landscape yet get the jitters when it comes to people. Here again, the trick is to forget you're painting a person and imagine you're doing a still life. Also, be sure to use a movable source of light with the model and explore the four different lighting conditions.
A good warm-up for this exercise is to first do a few black-shadow studies focusing on the design of the shadow shapes. Then you may want to move on to a limited-color palette. No matter what medium you work in, burnt sienna is a good "starter" color when learning to paint flesh. If you use watercolor, simply add water to lighten. If you work in opaque media, such as oils, acrylics or pastels, you need only add white to get a wide range of convincing fleshtones. Beyond that, choose any red, yellow and blue you like, and you're in business.
No matter which medium you're using, when laying in shadows with color, it's a good idea to first wash in a single unifying color over the entire shadow area. If the shadow is cool, a blue or purple could be suitable; if warm, try an orange. Then, when you start painting the true color of the shadows over the underpainting, the shadow pattern will have a color unity to it.
Working with a big brush and just a few gesture lines for a drawing, these sketches took less than 10 minutes each. Notice the absence of any features on the faces or wrinkles in the clothing. Also study the Interesting abstract pattern the various shadow shapes make, and how they contribute to the vitality of the poses.
Study the color sketches of figures above, and notice how the snappy shadow patterns give the forms life and animation.
LESS IS MORE
Like any other aspect of painting, strong, simple imagery is the best foundation for success. This means learning to leave things out. And once you learn to eliminate unnecessary details, I think you'll be surprised at how little definition is needed in shadows to convey an illusion of reality.
Working small is another way to force yourself to simplify. Pick up a pocket-sized sketchbook and a broadtipped marking pen and spend a few minutes each day snaring some interesting shadow patterns from the environment. Whatever your working plan, learning to turn the shapes of shadows into lively compositions can be both educational and fun.