How to Paint Shadows

Knowing which colours to use for shadows will help make sunlit areas more convincing. No colour should be barred when painting shadows; crimsons, violets and even greens can be found within.


Rendering Shadows in Painting


Shadows are always on the move, so it is worth returning to a particular site during different times of the day. The same site could yield several studies. Monet completed several paintings of Rouen Cathedral for this reason. Shadows offer an interesting slant to a familiar scene, as shown in this painting depicting the shores of Buttermere in England. The following pointers might help make the most of shadows within a painting.
  • A location where the shadows are pointing straight towards the viewer adds dynamism to the composition.
  • The edges of shadows often appear more diffused the further it has to travel. The shadows cast by treetops, therefore will appear softer than from branches nearer the ground.
  • Shadows will contain the most unexpected hues, such as crimsons, purples and violets.
  • Even shadows have highlights, and some areas of shadow will appear paler than others.
  • To add richness to deep shadows, avoid using black. Instead, introduce the complimentary colour to the surface colour where the shadow resides. For instance, shadows on grass could be darkened by mixing green with red.

Art Materials Required

  1. A suitable photograph of shadows
  2. Acrylic paint in burnt sienna
  3. Oil paints in the following colours: titanium, lemon yellow, pthalo blue, ultramarine, viridian, permanent rose, burnt sienna and burnt umber.
  4. A 12” x 16” (30.5 x 40.5cm) piece of MDF. An artboard or stretched canvas is also suitable
  5. A size 3 and size 6 round sable brushes
  6. A ½ inch wide bristle brush
  7. A palette consisting of a china plate or varnished wood.
  8. Small pot of artists’ white spirits
  9. A few rags
  10. A soft pencil
Tips on Painting Shadows
Consider the shadows to be part of the composition. This will avoid an interesting shadow trailing off the edge of the composition, making it look unbalanced.
Demonstration on Painting Sunlight and Shadow
Firstly, a thin layer of diluted burnt sienna acrylic was applied onto the painting surface in order to help set the tones of the painting. Once the paint was dry, the composition was sketched in soft pencil.
The palest areas were pasted on first. This consisted of lemon yellow and white. A little viridian was introduced towards the bottom of the painting. For the shadows, pthalo blue, burnt sienna and permanent rose were used. Notice how the shadows shift to a more bluish tinge over the path. A clean sable was used to soften the outline of the shadows.
Colour Mixing
A mixture of viridian and permanent rose was applied to the trees in the distance. The distant mountains were suggested by carefully dabbing ultramarine, permanent rose and white. This gives the illusion of distance.
Whilst the painting is in progress, the shadows will not appear to make sense. Make allowance for this until the rest of the painting has been sketched in. Adjustments can then be made.


Painting Mists in Shadow


In order to see if the shadows worked, the tree trunks were added next. Burnt umber and ultramarine were pasted on with a thick sable and drawn upwards in the direction of the growth.


For the sky, lots of titanium was mixed with a dab of ultramarine. This was introduced to areas between the branches. The direction of the brush marks adds expression and movement to the sky.


The trees were completed by drawing up more of the dark colour with a thin sable and moving it towards the top of the panting.


To finish off, the differing areas of tone and colour were softened with a clean brush. A little permanent rose was introduced here and there to inject warmth to the painting.



This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my two art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author via this site, or through Amazon.


My other book, Oil Paintings from the Landscape can be purchased direct from Amazon.


© Rachel Shirley 2010