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Painting Illusions of Light, Part 2: Considering Shadows in a Still Life Painting

Painting Illusions of Light, Part 2: Considering Shadows in a Still Life Painting

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The following is Part 2 of a series of guest blog posts on still life painting from expert painter Jane Jones, who often contributes to Magazine (read her feature articles here).

Part 2: Considering Shadows in a Still Life Painting More

by Jane Jones

As I create my paintings, I get to learn new things all the time. In the first few years of my practice as an artist I just wanted to “get it right.” Little did I know that I could learn to “get it right-er,” and then next year I will “get it even more right-er.” The goal of “getting it right” is elusive and always moving ahead of me.

Light can create the mood in a still life painting…soft or dramatic, open and breezy or tense. The light can be a critical element in the communication of your painting. And shadows have to be equally considered with the light areas.

Value Contrast in a Still Life Painting

In very bright light, the shadows will be very dark in relation to the light areas. When the light isn’t so bright, there will be less contrast between the two. In painting you always have to consider using opposites and to create light, you need dark.

In Indulgences (below, right), the light is rather soft and not dramatic. It reads that way because there is not a huge amount of contrast between the light areas and the shadows.

But in Silent Night (above), the light is very dramatic, in part, because there’s a lot of contrast between the light areas and the shadows.

Shadow Colors in a Still Life Painting

Our visual systems are designed to see best in the light, so it’s really easy to see the lights in your reference material. It takes a bit more work to see the darks, including the shadows, but creating those allows for the illusion of light. As you spend more time analyzing dark colors and shadows, your visual system will become more sensitized to them. It’ll become easier and easier to see them, and then mix the colors and paint them.

The colors of shadows can be tricky, especially in photo reference material, because photography and printing of the darks is not nearly as good as it is for the lighter areas. I find that I often make up the colors for the shadow areas. (There’s usually more information in the digital photo files than in a print, so I paint using both photos and my monitor.)

But first, I pay really close attention to the shadows in reality. Nothing can substitute for reality! If I have questions about the color in the photo of shadows on my draperies, then I take the fabric out into the sunlight and look at them. And sometimes I make color notes of flower colors while I have them set up. I put a few of the most likely colors on my palette and take it to the flowers and mix the colors. That’s the only sure way to know what color they really are. And it just takes a few minutes. Getting the shadow colors right is really important. Shadows are not just darker versions of the colors in the light.

Since I mostly photograph in the sunlight, outdoors, I know that the color of the sky is going to be reflected in the colors in my still life set up, which makes them cooler (bluer) especially in the shadow areas. When I photograph in the sunlight in my studio, shadows are warmer because the ceiling and walls are warmer than the color of the sky. I know this because I’ve spent a lot of time looking at them. And the more I see, the more I see. We don’t see everything all at once. For an artist, learning to see is a lifelong endeavor, and requires conscious attention, really focusing on what you’re looking at. I ask myself, “How would I mix that color?”

Edges in a Still Life Painting

The quality of the edges between the light and dark areas provide a lot of information about the quality of the light. The softer the light is, the softer the edges between light and dark areas will be. The brighter (harsher) the light is, the harder the edges will be. Look at my two still life paintings above. The shadow edges in Indulgences are more softly blended than they are in Silent Night, where the edges are much harder, in most areas. As the shadow recedes from the object casting it, the edges get softer…usually. And they are harder where the shadow is closest to the object…usually. Look at the shadow cast by the rock on the right and you will see that its shadow edges are much harder close to the rock and get more softly blended as they move away from the rock.

I remember the first time I created a believable illusion of light in a painting and I was SO THRILLED! I haven’t forgotten that moment, and still seek that feeling every time I create a painting!

I hope this helps you understand what to look for in shadows and how to create them in your paintings. In my next blog entry I will finish this series on light with an article about how to paint the illusion of light.

Click here to read Part 1: Setting Up

Click here to read Part 3: Painting the Illusion of Light in a Still Life Painting

Bio: Jane Jones is an award-winning artist whose paintings have been featured in many magazines, including American Art Collector and Magazine. She is the author of Classic Still Life Painting. Painting is her passion, as is growing the flowers that she uses in her paintings.

Websites: and

Watch the video: Advancing with Watercolor: Problems and Solutions - Complex Shadows - The Green Door (June 2022).


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  3. Devyn

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