Tuesday, February 7, 2012


(With thanks to The Pastel Journal where this was originally published.)

Pyracantha, 18" x 12"

Light is the life of a painting, but shadows define the light. Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “Shadows are the manifestation by bodies of their forms. The form of bodies would not show their particulars without shadow.” If we think of “bodies” as objects in the world, Leonardo’s statement is clearer: Objects cast shadows, which show form.

Without light there is no shadow, so the source of the light and its direction become key. The sun casts soft shadows down a wall, showing the path of the branch and leaves overhead, as well as the uneven shape of the wall. Some parts of the shadow are sharply etched; others are silky soft, the degree of detail dependant on the distance the shadow travels.

Value is perhaps one of the most important considerations in painting shadows, requiring the artist to carefully choose just how dark or light a particular shadow is.

The color of a shadow often almost defies description. Gray is too simple to depict a complex blend of colors and will not do justice to shadows.

Because pastels are a semi-transparent medium they lend themselves to the subtle transparency of shadows. Whether put down in soft layers or gently blended, pastels make beautiful shadows.

In landscape painting the source of light is clearly the sun, warm and yellow, casting shadows across the land and other planes. Because we have only one sun, shadows are cast in only one direction. However, sunlight may be direct or reflected, which can account for the mystery of shadows. Reflected light can add delightful complications, causing variations in angles and colors. Look for the mingling of sharp, crisp shadows created by closer objects and the fat, rounded shadows from those farther away.

Indoors, warm or cool lights cast shadows of varying depth and color and, when combined with available daylight from windows, may cast shadows in different directions.

“In the shadows the mysteries dwell,” da Vinci is said to have remarked. Master of chiaroscuro, he used deep, dark shadows to focus the eye on areas of clear light, creating depth and mood in his paintings. He did not neglect the mid-tone shadows, however, understanding that “shadows can be infinitely obscure or display an infinity of nuances in the light tones."

To paint the fine distinctions that can be found in shadows you must first select their proper values. Look for the nuances da Vinci mentions, the variety of shadows from the deepest crevice to the most insubstantial whisper of shade from a distant cloud.
Sun Streaks, 8" x 17"
Gaze into the light area and analyze a shadow’s value using your peripheral vision to perceive correctly the proper tone of even the most delicate shadow. When you stare into shade your pupils dilate and your eyes adjust to the dimness so that over time you can almost see in the dark.

Make use of your peripheral vision even when using a photograph, to aid you in seeing values more accurately, but be aware that the photograph is at best inaccurate. If you rely on photographs to decide the value of the shadow you can easily be led astray. The camera is a far less sensitive instrument than the human eye and averages the available light, resulting in overly dark shadows.

Take time to look at shadows, recording their values in your mind’s eye, rather than copying a photo. That way, when you use a photograph you will remain independent of it and remember the relative transparency of shadows.

All shadows are transparent, except when no light is present in them at all. Most shadows allow the viewer to see details and colors within them, though not to the same degree as in the light plane. If they were not transparent our world would be reduced to pure black and white, all light or all shade. Instead there are degrees of shadows and only some are inky black.

Twilight Crossroads, 8" x 17"
When painted correctly, a shadow does not look like something that has been laid over an object. It becomes an integral part of the object. If the shadow looks like a sock draped over the wall it needs to be more transparent. Only in the deepest darkness are shadows so thoroughly black as to become opaque, and those are usually found in outside at night or in a very dark room.

The value of a shadow becomes progressively lighter as it travels away from the object casting it. Shadows are darker where they originate and lighter where they end, due to the addition of light reflected from the sky or ambient light in a room.

As a broad generalization, the shadow side of an object is somewhat darker than the shadow it casts, due to this addition of light in the horizontal plane. However, this can be affected by the local color of the object, so that a white wall will not be as dark as the shadow it casts on green grass.

Shadows are all around you. Take a moment and look at a cast shadow, noticing how it becomes slightly lighter as it moves away from the thing that is casting it. The deepest shade is where the shadow begins.

Shadows are subject to the laws of aerial perspective, and so become lighter in value and cooler in color with distance. The shadow of a cloud cast at your feet is darker than the shadow of the cloud on distant mountains. Likewise the shadow in the near foreground of a still life is a degree darker than the one farther back in the composition, though this may be almost imperceptible. Still, as the artist attempts to capture the air between near and far objects, the degree of difference in a shadow’s value may become key.

The broad penumbra of a shadow may allow deeper shadows within. For instance, think of the concentrated shadows beneath a clump of grass in the shade of a tree or the still life where dense shadows are tucked in the recesses of a folded cloth in shade.

“Shadows should always partake of the color of the bodies they conceal," da Vinci elaborated for us. Shadow colors depend on the objects that cast them and that they are cast upon.

Evening Complements, 11" x 11"
To keep your shadows colorful but believable try this recipe: Imagine the local color of the object upon which the shadow is cast, slightly darkened by the shadow and somewhat blued by the sky if outside, or by the color of the light source inside.

This recipe will work for you as you begin to paint shadows, but as with any recipe, you should flavor it so that it becomes your own. A good cook knows that the recipe is a great starting point, but it needs the personal zest or subtle variations of the chef to make it special. Do not slavishly adhere to it; add a few dashes of colors of the correct value to spice up your shadows.

Oftentimes what color to use to begin can be a difficult decision. What color is that wall or the sidewalk in shade? It might help you to settle on the color of the object in sunlight before trying to determine the color of the shadow. If the wall is pink, darken it slightly; add a little blue and you get lavender. If the wall is yellow, darken it and add blue for green. White? Darker and bluer becomes light blue. You get the idea.

Remember, however, that a yellow wall does not become a green wall just because it is in shadow. You must always be sure to add a bit of the local color, in this case yellow, into the shadow area, selecting the proper value.

If you are still having trouble choosing a starting point, try standing back from the subject and simply naming one color. Walk away from the shade or a few steps off from your photograph. Name a color on the color wheel. Purple? Green? Remember that gray is not on the color wheel, nor is brown.

With distance you won’t see as many of the nuances of color and will be better able to name one simple color to use. Once you name it, run to your easel and find that color and begin there. Start with a color, then flavor it to make nuances of gray or brown, if necessary, or retain the freshness of whatever color you choose, as long as it is the correct value.

When painting interiors, the color of the light source can greatly influence the color of cast shadows. A yellow or pink spotlight casts a warm glow on the object, often resulting in warm shadow colors. Conversely, the overall luminescence of fluorescent light casts a cool light and soft, cool shadows. Neon light casts a bright glare, but generally has little power to cast shadows, leaving only a soft pool of shadow glowing with the neon color.

The strongest color is often found in the half-light areas of a painting. Where the object is flooded with light the color is bleached out, while in the dark shadows color is lost, leaving the transition areas of half-light to half-dark colorful and descriptive. These can be the most beautiful portions of your painting, telling your viewer more about the color of light and shadow than they realize.

Some people see the color of a shadow as complementary to the color of the plane on which it is cast, an idea made popular by the Impressionists. Of course, if you stare for a long time at any color you will begin to see its complement as an afterimage. This can work beautifully, but need not be a hard and fast rule. Be adventurous and try different combinations of colors to see how they work.

Closely examine the edges of shadows. Sometimes you will see a slightly warm quality there due to the afterimage, which leaves a halo of complementary color along the edge. This might suggest some great color ideas to you as an artist and result in exciting shadow colors.

Sidewalk Shadows, 12x18”
At their simplest, shadows on the ground could be described as basically cool in color because the cool blue of the sky is injected into them. Shadows on any vertical plane, such as the wall, are often somewhat warmer in color because light reflecting from the ground may bounce into them.

The idea of a recipe, therefore, is only a suggestion to help you begin. Shadows are complex and varied, and the colors used are creative decisions that every artist may choose.

Remember that shadows have no independent shapes of their own. They show the shape of the object that casts them and the shape of the object upon which they are cast. If a shadow changes direction or shape, either the ground it is crossing is causing it or it comes from the object casting it from above. It changes for a reason.

Shadows are crisp and detailed at the root and softer at the end. The farther a cast shadow travels the softer and rounder its shape becomes. The reason for this is the round shape of our sun.

This may be easier to understand if you think about sunspots, where light peeks between the leaves of a tree and is cast onto the ground. These spots will be rounder in shape the farther the sun travels before it hits the ground. The shapes of the leaves will be more apparent the closer they are to the wall. The sunspots will, conversely, appear rounded if the leaves are far away from the wall. This is because the gap where the sun shines through forms a kind of atmospheric lens that focuses the light in the shape of the sun, which is what accounts for the rounding of shadows with distance.

In fact, if you examine shadows and sunspots during an eclipse of the sun, the shapes change to mimic the sun’s shape. The next time there is an eclipse, rather than looking at the sun, pay attention to the shadows cast on the ground. It is remarkable to find crescent-shaped spots and shadows there.

Different media lend themselves nicely to different subjects. Because pastels are semi-transparent they may be lightly layered over one another to create the perfect shadow effect. You can apply a slightly darker, cooler value on your first pass to establish the location of the shadows, then lay several delicate layers of varying colors over that, adjusting to the correct value. Be sure to stroke in a fresh, light touch of the local color, such as the color of the wall.

If you resist the urge to blend, your colors will sparkle with the glow only pastels can give, though some light blending can result in soft transitions of color.

Spend time observing shadows. Look at the shadows on this page, your hands, the table behind it. Shadows are everywhere, defining the light, showing the forms of things.

 Field Shadows, 9" x 12"


  1. Deborah,
    Thank you so very much for your teaching guides. I love pastels and am using your teaching guides to paint landscapes. Although I'm a rank amateur, I love using the techniques you utilize, i.e., stepping away from the scene, then choosing colors. Painting is so much more fun now.

  2. Glad you're having fun, Jo. Keep going! This book blog will continue for a few more months, with new chapters posted every week. Stay tuned...

  3. Aloha Deborah!!! Thank you so much for all of your teaching!!! I just finished your two classes on Artists Network, and I watched one of your videos of the Panpastels. You are a fabulous artist and a wonderful teacher!!! Many Blessings, Crystal Rose

  4. I have been slowly reading your book and trying out your knowledge on my pastel paper! Thank you so much for sharing. YOU have so much knowledge and your willingness to share it is so appreciated.

  5. What I need to see is the shadow of. Tree across some water, mid morning. Thank you for all your direction though. Very rich!


Thanks for your comment on Painting the Landscape in Pastels ~Deborah