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Definition of shadow in art – Learn how best to use shadows in art

In art, shadows are an important tool for adding depth and realism to a painting or drawing. But what is a shadow? Technically, it’s the part of an object that’s hidden from view by another object.

Shadows can be used to create the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, and add interest and mystery to a composition.

Shadows also make up part of the values in art.

Value is the measure of how light or dark a color is. In a painting or drawing, shadows are usually depicted as darker than the surrounding areas. This is because they receive less light than other parts of the composition.

When new artists ask me for advice on why their drawings or paintings don’t look good, 90% of the time it is because they have either failed to add shadows into their art or have been to timid in using darker shadows.

This has lead to artworks looking flat and washed out. Once we fix the shadows, they tend to look much better.

The importance of shadow in art

Shadows are one of the most important elements of art, yet they are often misunderstood or used incorrectly.

The lack of shadows can make a painting look flat and uninteresting, even worse they can ruin an artwork if they’re not used correctly. But when used correctly, shadows can add depth, dimension, and drama to a painting.

How to use shadows in art

Now that we know what shadows are and why they’re important, let’s take a look at how to use them effectively in your own artwork.

When setting up your artwork or planning the composition, you can create models of the scene using various methods and tools such as lamps, candles, and objects. These will be used to make shadows in your art.

There are four main ways to use shadows in art:

  • To create the illusion of three dimensions
  • To add interest and mystery
  • To create contrast
  • To emphasize certain elements

Let’s take a closer look at each of these in turn.

Create the illusion of three dimensions

One of the most important functions of shadows in art is to create the illusion of three dimensions. This can be done in a number of ways, but the most common is by using light and dark colors to create the illusion of depth.

For example, if you’re painting a landscape, you might use lighter colors for the sky and darker colors for the mountains. This creates the illusion that the mountains are further away than the sky.

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Creating the illusion of 3 dimensions

You can also use shadows to create the illusion of three dimensions by painting objects that appear to be in front of or behind other objects.

For example, you might paint a tree in front of a house, with the shadow of the tree falling on the house.

This makes it look as if the tree is in front of the house, even though it’s actually on the same plane.

Image 1 – No shadows, the tree and house appear on the same plane.

No shadows makes the image look flat and 1 dimensional
No shadows makes the image look flat and 1 dimensional

Image 2 – Added simple shadows, the tree now appears to be in front of the house.

Even simple shadows can give some depth and make the image feel 3 dimensional
Even simple shadows can give some depth and make the image feel 3 dimensional

Shadows can be a great way to add depth and dimension to your paintings. By understanding how they work, you can create more interesting and realistic artwork.

Having the tree cast a shadow on the house now gives the impression that the tree is definitely in front of the house.
Having the tree cast a shadow on the house now gives the impression that the tree is definitely in front of the house.

Add interest and mystery

You can add interest and mystery to your paintings by playing with light and shadow. You can do this by painting objects that are in shadow.

This can create a sense of mood and atmosphere in your paintings.

If we use the earlier example of the tree in front of the house, we have a shadow being cast by the tree on the house.

To add mystery, we can cast more shadows around the area, and then within the tree’s shadow, we can add an image of a person or animal to add mystery.

Adding extra shadows and figure in the shadows can add mystery.
Adding extra shadows and figure in the shadows can add mystery.

Create contrast

Another way to use shadows in art is to create contrast. This can be done by painting an object in light against a dark background, or vice versa.

Contrast can make your paintings more eye-catching and can help to bring out the details of an object.

In our example, we could paint the tree in light against a dark background. This would make the tree stand out more and would also help to show off the details of the leaves and branches. Refer to the image below.

The trees stand out more due to the shadows creating contrast.
The trees stand out more due to the shadows creating contrast.

Emphasize certain elements

Shadows can also be used to emphasize certain elements in a painting. For example, if you wanted to make the tree in our example more prominent, you could paint the shadows around it darker.

This would make the tree appear to be in front of the other objects in the painting, and would help to draw attention to it.

So, there are several ways that shadows can be used in art. By understanding how they work, you can use them to create paintings with more depth and dimension.

Using shadows the emphasize the trees at the front.
Using shadows the emphasize the trees at the front.

Types of shadows in art

There are two main types of shadows in art: hard and soft. Hard shadows are formed when an object casts a dark shadow onto a lighter surface. Soft shadows are formed when an area of light is blocked by an object.

There is a subtle difference between the two, but it can make a big difference in the overall look of a painting.

Hard shadows are usually created by strong, direct light sources. The sun is the most common source of hard shadows. When the sun is high in the sky, it casts sharp, dark shadows.

These shadows have well-defined edges and can be very intense. Hard shadows are often used to create contrast and drama in a painting.

Soft shadows are usually created by diffused or indirect light sources. Clouds can diffuse the light of the sun, creating soft shadows. Candlelight or lamps can also create soft shadows.

Soft shadows typically have softer edges and less contrast than hard shadows. They can add a sense of mystery or atmosphere to a painting.

Shadowing Techniques

Shadows can be created by using different techniques. One technique involves using a light source to cast shadows on a surface.

This can be done by using a spotlight or by shining a light through a transparency to diffuse the light.

Another technique is to use an object to block the light and create shadows. This can be done by placing an object in front of a light source, or by using a shadow screen.

Different types of shadows can be created by combining these techniques. For example, you could use a spotlight to cast hard shadows on a surface, and then place an object in front of the spotlight to create softer shadows.

Tips for Using Shadows in Art

Now that you understand the definition of shadow in art, here are some tips for using shadows to create interesting and effective paintings:

  • Use softer pencils (B, 2B through to 9B) or soft charcoals to create darker shadows.
  • Blend your shadow’s edge for soft shadows and keep the shadow line straight and hard for hard shadows.
  • When using paint, try to use a variety of colors or tones to create shadows. You do not always need to use black to create a shadow. Try using a darker shade of the color the shadow is being cast on. Using dark blues and browns also works well.
  • Use a kneaded eraser to help soften shadows by lightly pressing and lifting the eraser on the paper.
  • For more definition, use a light source that is closer to the object. The further away from the light source, the softer the shadows will be. Try using a backlight or top light to create more depth in your painting.
  • Candles cast a soft and natural shadow.
  • Incandescent light bulbs, halogen lamps and spotlights will cast a harder shadow.
  • Keep in mind that the size of the light source will also affect the size of the shadow. A small light source will create a small shadow, while a large light source will create a larger shadow.
  • The angle of the light will also affect the size and shape of the shadow.
  • Use contrast: Shadows can be used to create contrast in a painting. For example, you could paint a light object in front of a dark background to make it stand out.
  • Create depth: Shadows can also be used to create the illusion of depth in a painting. For example, you could paint a row of objects, each with its own shadow, to give the impression that the objects are receding into the distance.
  • Play with light and dark: You can use shadows to create interesting effects with light and dark. For example, you could paint a light object against a dark background or vice versa.
  • Use color: The color of shadows can also be used to create interesting effects. For example, you could paint a blue shadow on a yellow surface to create a cool, refreshing effect.

As you can see, shadows can be used in many different ways to create interesting effects in your paintings.

So don’t be afraid to experiment with them! Just remember to keep the definition of shadow in mind, and you’ll be sure to create some stunning artworks.

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