Plein Air Painting Techniques for Painting Shadows


Here are some plein air painting techniques for shadows. When we are beginners at the art game, shadows and how to paint them don’t concern us much. We have too many other basics to get right to worry about such a subtle thing.

Shadows and Plein Air

Shadows give definition to paintings and provide another exciting element to work with in our design and composition tool kit.

• Plein air painting either in early morning or late afternoon light provides us with good shadows. Similarly, Fall, Winter and early Spring provide those lovely lengthy and interesting shadow shapes that can make a very simple painting sing.

• Paint the shadows first – they will change quickly – so get them into your painting right away.

• The shadow at the base of a tree is denser and darker than the shadow of the top of the tree – this rule applies to any cast shadow from an object.

• Ned Mueller passed on this next tip at one of his workshops. When painting a building with an open door, use red in your shadow mix – the warm shadow color inside the open door, will “invite” the viewer to mentally step into that space.

Are You Painting the Shadow Family or the Light Family?

Be mindful of whether you are painting light or shadows. One workshop I attended asked us to draw a vertical line down the middle of our palette color mixing space. One side was for shadow family colors, the other for light family colors. With each brush stroke we were to ask ourselves “Am I now painting the shadow or light family?” and go to the corresponding paint mix. This discipline is very helpful to teach ourselves which is which. It may seem such an obvious thing, but it isn’t – especially when we get caught up in the flow of our creation. Keeping our shadows and light as distinct as possible makes a huge difference – it also helps to keep our colors clean - this makes the play of light and dark (the chiaroscuro effect) that much more dramatic.

Painting from Photographs – The Shadow Knows

Painting shadows from photographs is very difficult. Photos always make shadows appear cold and dead, and much darker in value than they really are. This is one of the dead giveaways that something was painted from a photograph rather than from life. If we have spent a lot of time outdoors, then we know how to make adjustments to our shadows to compensate. If you are forced by weather or other circumstances to paint from photos, keep these limitations in mind.

Reflected Light into Shadows

Reflected light into shadow areas can be very exciting, and difficult to paint! It helps to spend a lot of time really looking at shadows areas out in nature. We find indications of all the local colors bouncing back into shadow areas and creating vibrance and life. Be sure to get your values right if you try this. This is truly where the “zen” of plein air painting comes in.

Dear Artists – If you have other tips to share about your experience of painting shadows, please contact us and we will add your information to this page.


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