127 – Color in Light and Shadow

I Recently had some questions about shadows from a student. His question focus on color in shadow. Here are his questions:

“Are things in shadow when they are cooler, grayer or darker? I assume that darker does not necessarily mean shadowed. So a bright red is in a light while a deep blue is more shadow? Is it all just relativity and no matter what we will see the lighter hues as more in the light?”

Great questions because when it comes to creating the illusion of colored three dimensional forms in light and shadow with pigments, it can get pretty tricky!

One of the most common mistakes I see students make, is to make “white” objects too light in shadow and fail to reduce the saturation of bright colors such as yellow in shadow. This leads to a flattening of the space and takes away from the illusion of form.

In this lesson, I’ll attempt to get to his questions specifically while looking at the broader question of what is shadow in art. Then we will study how shadow effects value, hue and saturation. Finally, we look at how different light effects shadow.

Let’s talk first about what a shadow is. This might seem rather obvious but determining where a shadow is coming from is important. There are two kinds of shadow; cast shadows and form shadows. Cast shadows are ones that emanate from one object and fall on another, preventing that object from gathering light from a light source. A form shadow is one that is on a three dimensional object that is apparent as it’s form turns away from a light source. All three dimensional objects have both a form shadow and a cast shadow. An object may throw it’s cast shadow on another object.

Form Shadows + Cast Shadows

Light Falling on Form

Now let’s take a look at how light falls on a form in a predictable manner.

It’s easier to see tones in black and white but get’s more complicated when we add color!

Color in Shadow

Now let’s dive into how color is impacted by light and shadow.
Forget warm and cool for a bit and concentrate on understanding hue, value and intensity.

Because something is dark, it does not necessarily mean it’s in shadow. But lightness or darkness is relative. As is brightness and dullness. Something is only light relative to something that is dark. Take a look at this value scale with a middle gray swatch down the center. That swatch is one flat gray but appears to change relative to the values adjacent to it.

For instance these two vary in value but both are in the same light.
Let’s put these into shadow and light. By the way, the shadow is a cast shadow from a the roof overhang of my house. The relationship between the values is the same in the shadow, just darker.
These two swatches are both the same value but vary in saturation and hue. We can see that they are the same value when we look at them in black and white.
Let’s see what happens when we put these in shadow and light.
In this case the shadow was cast by my shadow onto the swatches. Now lets look at a few more examples of color in light and shadow.
No color in shadow can have brighter color saturation than the same color would have in light. The impact of shadow on the value and saturation of colors can be dramatic. Let’s look at a two examples where I’ve used photoshop to help me to determine the colors in both light and shadow.

Color on Three Dimensional Forms

Now let’s look a couple of three dimensional objects in light and shadow. When depicting colored three dimensional objects an artist must consider how light is falling on the forms. Color bounces into the reflected light of the form shadows and into the cast shadows as seen in both of the examples below.

There are many other factors to consider when painting colors in light and shadow such as the strength, temperature and direction of light but having a good understanding of how light falls on form and of hue, value and saturation will help you to create more realism and convincing images.

Happy Drawing and Painting!


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with Marla Baggetta

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