Understanding Shadows

The Character of Shadows is Illusive

Because of their ability to create beauty and form, the illusive character of shadows must be observed and understood by the successful landscape painter. Shadows, it could be said, are the essence of form. Without them a landscape is reduced to flat masses, lacking in much interest and excitement.

The first consideration when setting up to paint a shadow is its general shape. These are determined by the shape of the object causing them. In the landscape this can be anything from trees, shrubs, hills, mountains, roads, riverbanks and a million other things. The shape of a shadow is principally a matter of observation and drawing.

A much trickier matter is the issue of value and color in shadows, which can be caused by various factors. The strength and quality of the light on a particular day, the amount of moisture, dust and pollution in the air, the color of the sky, the local color of the object itself and the colors in the adjacent area surrounding the shadow all play a vital role in the shadow’s color and value.

A recent trip into the field with some of my students will serve as a valuable example of what it takes to understand shadows. We arrived on location about four in the afternoon on a clear September day with a brilliant blue sky and little moisture or pollution in the air. The fall light chiseled shadows into the side of a mountain, which became the subject for the day. At its distance from us, the mountain was a combination of several green greys in a mid-tone value, with the shadows a half dark value on the blue-violet side of the color wheel, with a grayed-down intensity. Several rock ledges, which were very light in value and extremely warm in color, provided a stark contrast to the mountains’ cool shadows and gave this subject its alluring sparkle.

I told my students to start out by painting the shadows as a semi-dark blue violet, being careful, due to the mountain’s distance from us and their relatively lighter value compared to the shadowed undersides of shrubs in the foreground, not to paint them too dark. Once this was done the surrounding areas were painted in order to set up a color relationship that would make modeling the forms easier. (Setting up big relationships like these are the essence of correct color and value choices that follow). After these basic steps we focused our attention, knowledge and skills on the finer points of the task: optical color relationships, local color, reflected lights, dark accents and the quality of edges.

Optical color relationships are those color relationships that are sensed by the viewer due to the presence of other ambient or adjacent colors. It’s a visual phenomenon. On our trip to the field the yellow tone of the rocks strengthened the visual sensation of violet in the adjoining shadow.

Local color is the general coloration of the subject, which in this case included rocks, dirt and fauna. Local color is also influenced by the quality of light, atmospheric conditions, reflected light and distance from the viewer; all these considerations are in play when choosing the right color to paint an object. Here’s where painting what you see and not what you know a certain color to be is the key to a believable color in the painting.

There are two sources of reflected lights in the landscape, those that reflect from the ground plane, and those that reflect from the sky, mainly the blue of the sky. Any shadow plane is going to get some of the cooling effect of the sky unless it is facing in a downward direction. Shadows will be affected by the reflections coming in from the adjacent ground plane, which might even include a body of water. The more perpendicular the angle of the reflecting object is to the plane of the shadow, and the stronger the light source, the more the shadow will be affected by its coloration. If the local color of the reflecting object is warm in nature, the reflected light in the shadow will be warm, if it’s cool (as in the case of water in shadow), then a cool reflection will bounce into the shadow. So even though the old rule might be warm light/cool shadow and cool light/warm shadow, keep in mind that this is just a general rule and that warm and cool coexist to a certain extent in any shadow.

Dark accents are generally those little places that are relatively unaffected by the light, in this case the reflections previously discussed. In many cases I paint these dark accents using ultramarine blue and Transparent Red Oxide, tipping the mixture towards the red in order to give the accent warmth which I find more appealing; but don’t use this as a formula, when in doubt, observe!

Finally, one must consider edges, the meeting places of various planes and objects in the scene being painted. To understand the edge quality of a shadow the artist must distinguish between form shadows, the shadow created by the form itself, and cast shadows, the result of the same form casting a shadow onto another form. Cast shadows generally have a harder edge than form shadows (unless the form shadow is created on a surface that has changed direction abruptly, as in the case of a sheer cliff). Sometimes a shadow has both of these qualities going on at the same time as in the case of our mountain study. This may sound complicated, but a careful observation of the outline of a shadow will reveal all of these nuances to the artist who has taken the time to understand their causes. Edges are an expressive tool in any artist’s bag of tricks, so to speak. But these edges are less likely to be perceived as “tricks” if the artist has a basic understanding of optics and the reasons behind their formation in the first place. After knowing why edges present themselves as hard, soft or somewhere in between, the artist can then take liberties in pushing edges for artistic effects, without making the work appear slick or the product of an over-reliance on convention.

Well, there you have it on shadows. Study them when painting and especially when you are not painting. Some of the best studying you will do is when you are just taking a walk, or sitting quietly. Use these opportunities to observe nature and especially the way light interacts with it. Bring a small note pad on your next outing and jot down some new information you have discovered; you will gain a lot of knowledge this way. Remember, when in doubt, observe, that’s always better than memorizing “rules” that may not fit a certain context.

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