Being able to paint light and shadow can breathe fresh new life into your paintings. The way these two elements interact in real life is nothing short of fascinating, just ask the impressionists! Their whole movement and passion revolved around capturing the beauty of light.
Natural sunlight is, of course, the epitome of light and it can redefine a scenery or subject many times over throughout the day. For example, Monet understood this very well, and it shows through his paintings of the same scenes during different times of the day. The mood and feeling change drastically from early morning to midday, to sunset and so on. This means that light itself is the most important component of absolutely any painting because, without any light, it would simply be a black canvas.
Getting acquainted with a few simple concepts about how light and shadow interact will help you understand how to recreate them on your canvas.
1. Identify the Light Source
The first step when painting light and shadow is to become aware of where the light is coming from. This will define both areas of light and of darkness, and in turn, it will define the painting as a whole.
Value study of a still-life image on the left and detailed sketch on the right.
2. Isolate Values.
Sometimes colors can make things a bit overwhelming for the eye; this is why it is recommended to draw a quick black and white sketch of your painting to focus solely on values and ignoring color. The sketch makes it easier to identify areas of light and shadow. In this study, the light is coming from the left front side and casting subtle shadows on the right side of the second sunflower, right where the lid and vase touch and all throughout the folds.
If you are painting with watercolors, you want to begin by laying a thin layer of the lightest colors and then build up the painting in multiple layers thereafter, until you reach the darkest colors.
3. Ditch The Black Paint
An interesting concept, when it comes to painting shadows, is that there is no actual black in them. Some artists reject black paint in its entirety and prefer mixing their own dark hues. Doing so makes the paintings look more dimensional and realistic.
Shadows can usually lean either toward a cool tone or a warm one depending on their surroundings and the colors that are reflected upon them. Consider this when you mix your color, using your sharp observational skills to try to point out the undertones in the shadow.
In this watercolor study, no black was used whatsoever. I prefer not to have black paint on my palette altogether. Using only black for your shadows can make your painting look flat and one-dimensional. Light and the color of everything located around a shadow are reflected upon it to a certain extent, making the shadow contain colors that go beyond a flat black or grey. This is why you want to create your shadows by mixing cool and warm colors until you achieve the closest hue. Add more cool colors to it if the shadows in your painting have a cool undertone or add warmer colors if they have warm undertones – as is the case with this painting.