How to Paint Light and Shadows – A Yin and Yang Relationship

Shadow trees

Light and shadows are a big part of creating 3D images.  Everything we see in real life appears three dimensional because of distance and scale along with Light and shadow.  Example If I draw a ball without shadow, it looks like a circle.  The moment I add some shadow either on the ball or the ground or both, it jumps off the page.  Learning how to paint light and shadows is a key part of bringing your paintings to life.

You Can’t see the Dark Without the Light.

Lights and shadows have a Yin and Yang relationship, in that you can’t have one without the other.  The two are tightly connected.  Learning to use this relationship to your advantage will bring your paintings to life and give them greater depth.

Try to remember the direction of the two.  If the light source is on the left, then the shadows will grow from left to right.  If this rule of nature is broken, then the image will look odd.  If you are painting an abstract or the point of the painting is to confuse the viewer, then this could work in your favor.  Feel free to experiment with such things, it may help to prove how powerful light and shadows can be.

Let There Be Light!

You don’t need to paint a light source into the painting to show its effects.  A lot of my paintings do not have the source of light in the image.  Why?  Well often the light source would over power the scene. Have a quick look at the sun (don’t stare silly).  It is so bright that you can’t see anything but the sun.  That goes for most bright lights.  But let’s say I put a candle in the corner of a dark room.  The dark is the dominant force and the candle could be the focus or an empty chair.  Whatever the subject matter, the candle won’t over power the scene, (unless that was the point and your aim).

What ever your light source, keep in mind that light travels in straight lines.  If the sun is the source and it is out of frame shadows should all go in the same direction.  If it is something like the candle, then light (and shadows) move away from the source in every direction.

Light can be illustrated just by the tone of the colors used.  Let’s say I have a blue ball, the side closest the light source will have lighter tones of blue.  Depending on the luster of the ball or the brightness of the light, that lighter tone may even transition to a white on the most well-lit part.

To experiment with light and how it effects objects try different things at home.  Use a candle near a ball or box, use 5 candles.  Turn the lights all on or turn them off and shine a bright flash light on an object.  Take note of how the light illuminates the one side depending on intensity and the surface of the material.

Now attempt to sketch or paint the things you notice.  It is easier when starting out to use simple objects like a ball, or a box.  Anything without a lot of detail.  This will allow you to focus on the light and………

Shadows!! Come to the Dark Side!

Now to discuss the real master of 3D.  Sure, light allows us to see the texture and color of objects.  It gives us detail and reflections.  But shadows are what really give something depth and bring it off the canvas.  As mentioned above the ball without shadows is just a circle.  Even if I leave the shadows off the ball and put in the shadows it casts on the ground, it magically has structure.  Why?  Because the shadow creates the illusion not of a 3D ball but the illusion of the 3D environment that it is in.

Shadows on the ground and surrounding objects are what give the object a place to live.  Shadows on the object itself give the object depth.  You don’t need to paint long drawn out shadows to create the effect of 3 dimensions, subtle bits or shade or darker colors and tones on the “dark side” can be very powerful.

Again, light travels straight lines and shadows are the absence of the light.  They follow what the light does.  Yin and Yang!  As the position of the light changes so does the size and shape or even the existence of a shadow.  If the light source is low to the ground (like a candle on a table) and the object is respectively on or near the same plain, the shadow will be long and drawn out.  If the light is high above, the shadows will be very short or small and may barely show up.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Okay everything I stated above is elementary and we all know how shadows work in real life.  But put it all into a drawing or painting.  That can get tricky.  That is why I suggested experimenting.  The more complex the shape, the harder it is to picture its shadow.  So, again I say start with some simple shapes and play with the light.  Use a pad of paper and a pencil.  Practice and see how light naturally falls on objects.

Some tips:

  • Paint long or bulky shadows in the direction the light is travelling.  It will help keep the line correct and make the shadow more real.
  • Use a slightly darker version of the surface that the shadow is being cast onto as your shadow’s color. Trying to use black will likely be too much.  Unless the image is like the above-mentioned candle in a dark room.  The entire painting could be made of black shadows and the light is all you see.  But that might be a bit advanced.
  • Keep it small and simple.  Most paintings you will do as you start don’t need heavy detailed shadows.  Just changing the color of an object form one side to the other will create the desired effect.
  • Use lighter colors to highlight the light side slightly.  Sometimes just adding a bit of light to the edge of a tree or some lighter colors on top of the darker leaves will be enough to make things pop.
  • Don’t focus too hard on the light and shadows if they are not a focus point of your painting.  Use them but subtlety is usually all that is required to bring object off the page.  Paint a ball, use a light color of gray and just paint a thin out line on one edge.  You will see that was all that it needed to jump off the page.
  • The simplest tip I can give is to just keep the light source in mind and keep it consistent.

Shadow Boxing

I have covered a lot here, but that is to give you an idea of how you can use shadows and light to your advantage and create certain effects.  Experiment!  Try some different things.  Sit with a pencil and paper and practice.  Have a look at the images of the the tree to right and the rocks to the left.  Notice that they have shape?  All I did was highlight one edge with light and they now have structure.  Remember that most of the depth I create using shadows is on the objects themselves and just by shifting the color from one side to the other slightly, you can make an object stand off the canvas.  Try not to focus on the light and shadows and forget what you are painting.  Paint your image and use the light and shadows to give it that extra ZING.  You would be surprised at how much a painting can change when a simple shadow on a rock or tree can bring things to life.

Thanks for reading!  I hope I have given some insight into how to paint and use light and shadows to bring depth to your paintings.  If you have any comments or questions, please leave them in the comments section below.  I would love to hear from you.


6 Comments on “How to Paint Light and Shadows – A Yin and Yang Relationship”

  1. I will have to try this out. When I was younger, I would draw all of the time, but once I got out of school (and had to stop taking notes) it all stopped. A few weeks ago, some friends and I had a drawing challenge, and I was surprised by how relaxing it was- I really felt like I was in some sort of a flow state. The exercise that you have in this post seems completely doable for me.

  2. Wow! Thank you for sharing these techniques, I never understood the shadows or light but the way you put it as the yin and yang makes more sense.
    I have never been a painter or drawer, just doodling and such; I’m excited to show my son and have some fun with creating simple shapes with shadows!

    1. Great! I know I talk a lot about painting, But I love to draw and sketch are well. Actually I started pencil drawing way back when I was young. I used to love it. Maybe I need to do some more of that.
      Thanks for your comments.

  3. I like how you went step by step showing how to create shadows. First starting with a circle, then created a shadow adjacent to it, and then created shades on the circle itself. It is clear that you know what you are doing and the details prove it. Keep up the good work!

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