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Question Sticker Series: Understanding Light & Shadow

Question: "What are your biggest struggles or fears when it comes to making art?"

Reply: "To understand light and shadows, especially in still life"

In My Own Work

First of all, I would just like to say that I omitted things like shadows and reflections from my artwork for YEARS because I found them quite intimidating. They are not an easy thing to master and just like everything else in art, it is a skill that takes time and practice and patience. If you want to get good at it, you have to put in the effort.

Let's start with the very's a very good place to start.

For starters, subjects with a single direct light source are the easiest and a good place to begin practicing. It is also easier to practice on simple shapes rather than complex ones. Spheres and cubes are the usual examples. Things like an empty vase or a wine bottle or even a piece of fruit can provide more interesting subject matter.


Most importantly, I would encourage you to use the power of observation. Study your subject closely. Look at it as if you had never seen it before. Pay attention to the details. For example, the shape the shadow makes, and where the highlights are. So long as your light source is constant (and not moving like the sun) then your subject will give you all the information you need.

The Basics

Here are a few "rules of thumb", they may seem fairly obvious, but keep in mind I am writing this to include all skill levels.
  • Shadows will always fall on the side of the object that is opposite from the light source. Highlight and shadow placement should be consistent throughout your piece, so if the highlight is on the upper left-hand side of one object it should roughly fall in the same place on every object in the scene. Likewise, the shadow will always be on the (opposite) lower right-hand side. Things like reflected light and overlapping shadows can be worked in later once you feel like you have a handle on things.
  • There is no standard color for shadows, colors should be determined on a case by case basis and will vary greatly depending on the subject in question. For example, the shadow on a tomato will be very different from the shadow on a blue vase. Furthermore, shadows tend to be more muted and less saturated in color. Additionally, shadows are generally cooler in comparison to areas not in shadow.
  • Highlights and light areas can be left the white of the paper or with a subtle tint of color. I will sometimes mask out my highlights so I don't forget to leave white areas and absentmindedly paint over them.

Due to the fact we are attempting to render a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface (the paper), things like depth and contrast between light and shadow areas often need to be intentionally exaggerated. In other words, they need to be designed or engineered to create the desired effect. The intensity of this effect will be tailored to your individual preferences and you will develop an eye for it over time. Do not simply copy the values from your reference, especially if working from a photograph. Doing so will tend to make your paintings look flat. (Don't worry, you are not alone, I have a habit of doing this too!)

As you begin to develop your understanding of painting light and shadow, I suggest starting with just three values and in greyscale, adding color often complicates the issue (it is easy to get distracted trying to color match rather than focusing on the value range.)


Practice by making value studies, they are an excellent tool to determine the placement and level of value before you start your painting. It's like making a road map for your painting process and will eliminate the need to make quick, in the moment decisions that could make or break your piece. World renown artist Thomas Schaller is an excellent example of an artist who uses value and high contrast in his work. He will often do value studies before starting a finished painting. The more value studies you do, the more you will start to see things in terms of value rather than color.
Painting in three values:
  1. Lightest areas (leave these the white of the paper, if you're not sure, leave it white, it is much easier to add more paint later than trying to lift it off once it's dried).
  2. Middle values - various washes that are about 30-60% pigment to water.
  3. Darks - these should be the areas of darkest value and strongest paint concentration.
TIP: It is typically easier to see value in black and white photos - you can use your cell phone to snap a quick photo of your work and then convert it to a black and white image. This will allow you to do a greyscale value check of your painting. My friend and fellow artist Jen Dixon has a quick Skillshare class called "Studio Fu - Check Tone with Your Phone," on ways to use your phone to check values and tone if you'd like more instruction.

Final Thoughts

If you do not understand or are unsure what I mean by the term 'value', please take a moment to look it up on Google. It is a fundamental component of creating dimension in your artwork.
I hope this helps you understand light and shadows a bit better! I welcome your thoughts and opinions on this subject, after all, I am still learning too! And of course, thank you for reading!
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