How to Paint Light and Shadow

Learning how to paint sunlight and shade is one of the formative skills of oil painting. Furthermore, the artist must never discount an apparently dull scene on a cloudy day, as it will often be transformed by sunlight, and light is the key to painting like the Impressionists.

How to Paint Sunlight and Shadow

Without sunlight, there is no shadow, and both must be considered simultaneously in a painting. Bright sunlight offers the artist great opportunities for using bright complimentary colours and stark contrasts in tone. The following pointers might be worth bearing in mind when trying to portray a sunlit setting.

When painting from life, time is the essence, for the sun is constantly shifting. This forces the artist to make snap decisions and to take risks. This is a good exercise for challenge
  • Most shadows are not merely black, but contain lots of colours, from crimsons, reds, greens to purples. Careful observation and accurate colour mixing is the key to capturing convincing shadows
  • The sunlit side of an object will often exhibit the complimentary hue to the shaded side. For example, a red object will often shift towards blue spectrum on the shaded side, unless there are reflections from a neighbouring object. Introducing the object’s complimentary colour is a good way of darkening its colour
  • Sunlit objects will often exhibit the most dazzling colours. Do not be afraid of using bright colours neat from the tube.
  • If something does not work out right, due to time pressures, the area can easily be tonked, which is a technique where the oil paint is erased, in order for the artist to start the area again.
The Following illustrations show how an object will appear different as the sun shifts in the sky.

How to Paint Light Effects

An object obliquely lit will exhibit long shadows. This type of lighting reveals form and is therefore the most popular choice of lighting for the artist. The translucent area of the deckchair exhibits the purest colours. Highlights and shadow have been expressed by varying amounts of white and the complimentary colour respectively.




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Colour Saturation
when the objects are lit from the front, objects will appear at their most colourful. This is known as "colour saturation." Flat areas of colour and tone will exhibit dazzling hues within. Pigments applied pure from the tube would often be required.
 How to Paint Sunlit Objects
Again, when the sun is at its brightest, colours will dazzle the eyes, but the contrast between light and shade will be very pronounced. Some areas are very bright, others very dark.
Painting Light to Dark
When the sun is ahead of the viewer, the difference in tone will be at its most extreme to the point where colours are difficult to ascertain. Everything will appear either very bright or very dark. Transparent objects such as the deckchair will punctuate the almost monochromatic scene with its bright hues.
Painting Subdued Light
In sharp contrast to a scene lit from the front, a scene beneath a cloudy sky will exhibit more gradual tones and less contrast. Highlights and shadow will be expressed in subtle increments, and the difference between the brightest and darkest areas will be less pronounced.
Oil Painting Shadow Techniques
As can be seen from the five paintings of the deckchair, the colour and tone of an object will appear very different on different times of the day, and also during overcast weather. This will be reflected within the palette, where bright colours and sharp contrast in tones will be evident, yet at other times, the colour and tone will appear more subdued. Careful observation is the key.
 This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my 2 art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author, or through Amazon.


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


© Rachel Shirley 2010