Composition | Perspective | Anatomy | Shadow & Light | Color | Style 

Shadows and Light

Looking beyond the line

It is my belief that the best way to begin the subject of “Chiaroscuro” would be to discuss light and shade in contrast to composition and the subject choice. My reasoning  is  that, specifically how the painting was rendered carries equal  importance to the subject matter and how it has been set in frame.

The craftsman’s  abilities are promoted when  a  piece of art  is created from proper analysis and dramatic attention to detail with the application of shadowing and light. Elevating these qualities in your work  can attract interest to even the most obtuse subject. Understanding the fact that “my” personal opinion is not important here, the point  I’m attempting to establish is that you could paint an image of a “soup can” by properly using the principals of perspective with shadows and highlights and attract interest to the viewer validated by the quality of your work alone.

 As you evolve to more sophisticated accomplishments with your art, your analysis and observation qualities will be enhanced as well. One of the most highly recognized qualities of observation, is the ability to capture the effects of light in your work. I’ve broken down my personal analysis and observation of light into these four categories:

View of the Canal Martin, Paris
Drawing light & shade, understanding chiaroscuro, Giovanni Civardi


Light source/direction and intensity- First you must come to realize that without light all is in darkness. Then by analyzing the direction which light is radiated and duplicating this observation as accurately as possible you will enhance the overall appearance of your painting.  Much of this is dictated by similar  rules to linear perspective except that the principals are transposed since all rays of light come from the source. So, just as you would make all subjects fade into the horizon line, all light projection is determined from the source. To do this you will have to determine the direction of the light source and add lighter tones closest to the source while decreasing the light’s intensity in the subject lines as you move away from it and darkening those that are shaded. . You will also need to apply back light to any figure in front of  the light and darken the areas which are not exposed. (eg., a silhouette)

After understanding the effects of  light from a single light source we can then move on to depicting views that combine light source from multiple directions such as ambient and source lighting within a painting.


  Tonal perception and blending – In most cases “tonals” are described as lights, darks and all colors in-between. In order to more accurately envision this concept, we should first observe tonal qualities as black and white liaised with multiple shades of gray. By using  darker tones in the shadowed or the recessed areas and highlighting  the raised areas with a lighter tone, if done properly  you be able to add dimensional detail. In most cases you will find that blending will be required to remove the sharp edge or line where the color changes. Blending is most often achieved :

  • In pencil or ink techniques, one of the most common ways for an artist to suggest  depth or to portray shadow is to use the hatching method. This is where close parallel lines are drawn together or cross-hatched with the parallel lines crossed by another perpendicular set of lines, creating a dense grid like pattern.
  • To create a more realistic rendering a rolled coil of leather or paper known as a bending stump or tortillon can be used to rub chalk, charcoal, graphite, or pastel to smudge the medium in order to create the desired tonal effect.
  • Dry brushing is often used to softly lighten highlighted painted areas. Take some of the color used in that area and lighten it with some white paint. Then using a stiff flat brush or a shader and dip it in the lightened paint. Wipe the paint off the brush by stroking it on a piece of paper to remove excess paint . Then wipe the brush lightly and blend over the highlighted area. You should see these areas start to stand out. You can continue to repeat this process with a lighter shade each time until you’ve achieved the transitional effect . Dry brushing is also used to create other various faux finish effects such as marble, stone, leather or suede. For example, to create the appearance of  leather,  try dry brushing brown over a black base coat. Scumbling can be used to create a highlighting effect by scraping, scrubbing or lightly dragging a small amount of lighter color or semi-opaque color over a darker under painting, allowing the darker color to show through.
  • Washing is when  paint is thinned to make it flow better in where the diluted the pigment  produces a transparent effect. This is a delicate process especially with watercolor, since the diluted paint will have a tendency to lift the previous layer of paint or over soak your paper in the process. However, it is a preferred method for realists oil and acrylic painters. Use your brush to push the paint around and make it stay in the right areas blending as you go. You can also follow washing after applying your color with dry brushing to smooth out any hard edges that may appear.
  • An airbrush can create a terrific natural look that is generally difficult to achieve with a brush. After you have used  your base coat paint and left a small amount in your color cup, you can you can progressively lighten  the thinned out paint directly in the cup. Use several light coats over the areas to be shaded to obtain the desired results.

The Accolade
by Edmund Blair Leighton
Oil on canvas

During this observation  you should not forget Leonardo Da Vinci’s principals of aerial perspective.  Colors are often defined as warm (reds and yellows) or cold (blues and greens). You can add depth to your painting by using warm colors in areas that you intend to project to the foreground and add the cooler tones to the shadows and  into the receding plane with blues and grays.

When a painting requires darker tones,  I have a personal favoritism towards omitting black from my paintings (unless an object actually contains black) once I have decided that a painting is to be done in color. I prefer to use a mixture of Prussian blue and Alizarin Crimson as it actually at times appears even darker than black. When this mixture pertains to depth in a painting, the same laws of atmospheric perspective apply. You can use blues carefully  in the foreground to obtain a shadowed effect, if making certain the shadows retain a slight reddish tint.


   Reflection and transparencies- Reflection and transparency has daunted us since creation. It is only natural for us to attempt to recreate this vision on canvas. Whether it is a face in a mirror, a beam of light on a window, or a mountain reflection on a calm lake, we all strive to capture this image accurately.

Observation is the key to putting this type of image on canvas. By looking closely, you will notice that on the reflective surface a beam of light or the image line will be deflected at a different angle from the original projection plane, slightly compromising the laws of linear perspective. However, once the projection angle  has been altered, the  reflection will continue in the reverse order of the original image. The tones of the image may also appear to have changed based on the direction that the light is traveling from the source.

Where light is directed from the back of a figure standing facing a mirror, light will be highlighting that which is closest to the source. However, because  in it’s reflection the figure is actually facing away from the light  it’s features will be slightly shadowed in the front of the reflection,  the reverse of the actual figure.


Color dispersion – Try to think differently about how color creates the image we see. As an example, observe how  snow doesn’t always appear  white and how each crystal actually reflects the colors surrounding it. In order to see color as it should be moved from palette to canvas it is to your advantage to visualize the subject pixilated where a multitude of colors are combined in a space to create one tone.

The way our eyesight recognizes color is dependent solely on the amount of light that is allowed to create it. A camera records a  two dimensional image of a landscape perfectly clear from the point where we’re standing all the way to the horizon.  Focus, composition, and technical manipulation of the image can extend the photographer’s expression of an image. However, the intensity of the color reflected from an object is often distorted when captured due to the film not being able to absorb or reproduce the total variables almost always dictated by deficient inconsistencies of the light.  This is the contention and the “plein aire” painter’s objective substantiating  the importance of capturing the light exactly as they  see it. In distinction, where a camera can capture an expression at a faster rate, more so a painter is enabled with even greater control over his expression by being able to alter focus and contrast, tonal observations,  the placement of the subject or any other technique that pleases him.

One key hindering factor for both artist and photographer is the inconsistency of light which, once a project is taken indoors becomes compounded by lack of natural light in the studio. When comparing  various tones to color, it is always a good idea to keep a few color reference charts on hand for those times when you are uncertain of your color mixing. Keep in mind however, that the atmospheric lighting in the area which you are painting can seriously effect how you interpret it. If you are an indoor painter you’ll become well aware of what I am saying if you take a painting you are working on outdoors and review  the colors you’ve applied.  You can find additional information pertaining to studio lighting here.



  Shadow is a colour as light is, but less brilliant; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones.”Paul Cezanne 


Related Links

The Deco Art Painter’s Helper – Americana color shading/highlighting chart

Alzofon Art Institute Academy Lesson



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