Let’s Get Shady!

Why are there such variations in the appearance of shade and shadows, even within a single picture? How, as artists, can we capture that variation with paint? Why do some shadows have hard edges and others appear soft? Why are some shadows darker than others? Read on…

Value.

We know that mastering light and shadow is key to successful watercolor painting. By using VALUE (light and dark) a painter can give an object shape, form, depth.  PATTERNS of light and shade are, in effect, what we are actually trying to capture in paint.

Light Source.

When beginning to paint, an artist needs to consider where the light is coming from, the LIGHT SOURCE. The way light hits an object affects how it is seen and how it will be painted. Are you painting a bright sunny day, a dark overcast day, or a gloomy interior, for example? Light affects mood, and will determine the types of shadows you need to paint. Beginning painters sometimes try to avoid painting shadows, but then wonder why their image looks flat and incomplete. Shadows create form – add shadows to a drawing of a circle and it becomes a rounded sphere. So, at the outset, analyze how and where the light strikes an object. (Keep in mind that there may even be more than one light source!)

 

Complexity!

Initially, shadows may look as if they are made up of only two values, light and dark. But look more carefully and you will see a much more complex reality.

Barn Interior

Shadow components.

Break down a shadow and you will find many components. The HIGHLIGHT is the area hit directly by the light source. There is often little or no detail visible here, as it is too bright. Paint a highlight with a very pale tone or leave the white of the paper.

The area of an object that is transitioning from the highlight to the darkest shadow area is called the HALFTONE. If the object is curved, as a sphere or rock, this transition of value is gradual, and would be painted with a soft edge.

The actual SHADOW (sometimes called a LOCAL or FORM shadow) will be in the area of the object that is hidden away from the light. It is generally the darkest area, receiving the least amount of light. Shadows are dark, but rarely black! To mix shadow color, you might mix the local color of the object with some transparent blue (sky light) and some of the local color’s complement.

Often, light can be reflected back into the shadow, illuminating it. This REFLECTED LIGHT bounces off a nearby surface and carries some of the color of that surface into the shadow. Reflected shadows would be lighter than the actual shadow, but never as bright as an area directly in the light. The amount of color reflected depends on the intensity of the light source as well as the character of the surface reflecting the light. Observe carefully how much reflected light you see in shadows and what colors are introduced there.

A CAST SHADOW is created by the object interrupting the light, and its shape relates to the shape of the object and the ANGLE of the light source. The cast shadow will follow the contour of what it falls on, for example, uneven ground. It will grow LIGHTER in value and softer-edged the farther it extends from the subject casting the shadow. The darker and harder-edged you paint cast shadows, the brighter the light will appear. Choose clear blue shadows for sunny days, whereas on overcast days, a cool gray or grayish purple would be a more appropriate choice for shadows. As the weather and quality of light in the sky changes, so do the color, value, and edge qualities of the cast shadows.

barn walshaw

 

Wet-in-wet is an ideal technique to introduce color into a still wet shadow. You might paint a base shadow wash in a lighter tone than your final desired value, then drop in additional colors, each successive color mixed to a somewhat drier consistency than the previous ones (to avoid over-wetting and creating pools of paint). Don’t overmix colors when you add them into a shadow, which would create a dull uniform gray that appears flat. You want to retain separate colors and variation of color within a shadow. Remember to use transparent colors in your shadows if your aim is to deepen and darken the shadow. On the other hand, bright opaque pigments, such as yellow ochre or raw umber, could lighten the shadow and suggest reflected light. You might also lift out patches of color to build lighter spots of dappled light, or reflected light.

Hard or soft?

Several factors affect the softness/hardness of shadow edges. We know the SOURCE of light changes the appearance of shadows. With a single bright light source, such as the sun, shadows will be strong and sharp. Diffuse light, on the other hand, such as through a window out of direct sunlight or on an overcast day, produces shadows less defined and with soft edges. In diffuse light, value contrasts will also be less strong.

Jamison's Ocean Light

So, sharp edges and details are found in well-lit areas, whereas soft or lost edges and ambiguity are located in the shadows. It doesn’t make sense, for instance, to try to paint sharp, crisp details in darkened, poorly lit room. Instead, blur or soften details in shadow, even painting shadowed areas wet-in-wet on dampened paper with a passage of mingled colors. (Remember to dampen as evenly as possible, however, to avoid puddles or pools of water. Don’t flood the area with lots of water. Pre-wetting evenly encourages a soft blend of paint.) Leave your paper dry where you want to retain details, perhaps under bright lamp light.

Also, the DISTANCE FROM THE OBJECT casting the shadow to the shadow itself also has an effect on whether shadows are hard or soft edged. Where the shadow lies close to the object, such as plants in a flowerpot casting a shadow on the ground, the shadow will tend to be crisp and dark. A tree, farther away from the ground, will cast a lighter, softer shadow, since as the distance increases, more light is able to reach the shadow.

Try to apply what you just learned in this blog post about shadows. Take a look at this Kenny Harris painting (below) and see if you can analyze and make sense of the many and varied shadows.

Turquoise window-kenny-harris.com

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No Light Without Shadow!

\All painters want to know how to portray light in order to create atmospheric and dramatic effects. When an artist can emphasize light, an everyday scene can become far more exciting. Since light is represented in watercolor by the untouched paper, the light is already in the painting. The watercolor artist must preserve the white/light while painting mid-tones and shadows in order to accentuate the light. Only by painting the darks or shadows that surround the light can the light be made obvious.

Light on Hill

 

On a bright sunny day, very pale washes (or untouched white paper) suggest direct sunlight, for instance, while darker mixes of color indicate a more shadowed area. Be bold! Without darks, your lights will lack liveliness. Take a look at Paint Your Shadows Bold…And Transparent!, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/29/dont-be-afraid-to-paint-your-shadows-dark/, my blog post from January 29, 2019, for more tips on painting shadows.

Value contrast (with lights close to and emphasized by darks) can create the illusion of light, depth, and a center of interest. On the other hand, if there are too many areas of equal light intensity (or a lack of shadows) in a painting, the image will tend to look flat, less interesting, or bland. If you tend to avoid painting dark colors, perhaps by adjusting your values you could create a picture with more impact.

In many ways, almost nothing is as important in a watercolor painting as how you handle lights and darks (value). (For more in depth information on value, read Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?, a blog post from May 21, 2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/.) Protecting the light areas is crucial, so try to plan what areas of the picture you want to save as light before the painting begins. While you can mask, scrape, scrub, or use opaque white gouache to save/regain the white of the paper, it is often much more successful to preserve the variations in light from the outset with a painting plan of attack.

Seedlings Painting

 

By seeing light and learning to capture it with paint, we can create the dramatic illusion of light in our work. But as Jean Haines says on page 43 in Colour And Light In Watercolour, “Before we can even begin to paint light, we have to be able to see it. Once you start to look for light it becomes an addiction. No painting feels right without it. It becomes a part of your being as an artist. You find yourself searching for ways to bring light into your work, and even more ways to paint it.” So, think about where light plays a part in each of your paintings, and observe what it is about the light on your subject that grabs your attention.

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Distinguishing Layers In Watercolor.

Most watercolors are painted in layers; not all in one go. But how do you decide how many layers you need to paint? How do you break down or separate the layers ? How many layers will you need to ‘tell the story’ of your painting? How can you add ‘enough’ layers to suggest shape and detail without losing the light and luminosity you strive for? How many layers are too many?

Seeing in layers.

While there is probably an infinite number of layers possible, the great artists of the past generally show only the essential aspects of a subject with nothing extra added. Their art is deceptively simple. Many of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors, for example, are created with only three layers. Arguably, Sargent’s AWARENESS of what is essential in an image, his vision, is just as impressive as his brushwork.

My Swamp

Simplify and plan.

Just as reducing the number of colors in a painting can improve your work (see Choosing Colors For a Painting…Less Is More!, 9/11/2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/11/choosing-colors-for-a-painting-less-is-more/ ),  limiting the number of layers (even brushstrokes) you paint is an effective way to simplify your image and create a strong painting. Avoid adding layer upon layer and overworking! Rarely are more than four or five layers necessary.

When planning your painting, IMAGINE a series of layers. This selective vision may take some practice. Strive to peel back each layer of paint to analyze how layers below might be painted.

Full Moon

Work backward – reverse the order in which the paint will be applied. You must mentally remove the darker layers (which will be painted later) from the image. Try to recognize the dark patterns as separate from the lighter shapes. Once you picture the darkest darks and mentally remove them from the picture, you can then analyze and separate light- and middle- value shapes in the same way.

Method.

Usually, you will strive to reserve some whites of the paper in a painting. With that in mind, the first paint layer will then be created by painting your light valued colors, a second layer will contain middle values, and a third layer will be made up of dark values.

More specifically, block in each of the major shapes with its lightest tone, avoiding any areas within the big shapes that should remain lighter and be reserved. The care you must take in painting each layer is dependent on the story to be told by the picture itself. You must decide early on which value layers will tell more of the important information in your specific picture.

Fall Queen Ann

For instance, in a high contrast picture with strong, bright light, the later dark values tell the story and pull the picture together. Therefore, the first layers of light and middle values might be applied with less attention, with the dark values painted more carefully. Details would be saved until the later layers. In contrast, in a more subtle image where light and middle values play a bigger role, more care must be taken in the first layers, with consideration of color and texture. Forms may need to be established early in such a painting.

In summary, when the lightest colors have been applied and dried, the second (mid-value) layer can be begun, shape by shape. Then, the third (dark) layer can be added. With each successive layer, less of the picture will be painted, until the final finishing touches (darkest darks) are complete!

Winter Ice

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Composition!?!

Composition is simply the study of the way things are arranged, whether in art, music, a plate of food, or the furniture in a room. Where we put things makes a statement about our point of view.

DO I HAVE TO FOLLOW ALL THESE RULES?

A lot has been written about composition and it may seem overwhelming to you. There have been many rules formulated about creating good paintings. Often, however, learning these formulas and rules can be dry and boring! It can be difficult to know HOW TO APPLY these rules to specific scenes. And it sometimes feels that the rules prevent you from being creative or being yourself.

First, let me assure you that you need not follow all composition rules slavishly in order to improve your picture. The formulas are guidelines that help you achieve dramatic, effective art that holds your audience’s attention. You can choose several rules that you feel are important to apply to a chosen image – use whichever rules you feel are most useful in getting across what you want to get across in each of your paintings.

WHY?

Composition (arrangement) is everywhere! Since a good composition need not reproduce reality exactly, you are free to use the composition guidelines to rearrange components of your painting. When non-artists look at art they don’t necessarily think about or understand composition. They merely like or dislike a painting. If the art appeals, then you can be confident that the artist used composition skillfully to reach the viewer at an emotional level. Beginning artists, too, can sometimes be surprised to learn about all that is involved in planning a good painting. Strong paintings don’t just happen! They need to be composed.

Winter Birches.jpg

To get a viewer to see what, as artists, we want them to see, we therefore arrange the elements at our disposal. The TOOLS we use are SHAPE, VALUE, COLOR, TEXTURE.

With the above-mentioned tools, we can create EFFECTS in our composition or arrangement. We consider UNITY and DOMINANCE, try to achieve BALANCE (of value, color, type of line, e.g. diagonal), use PERSPECTIVE, create CONTRAST (of color, value), MOOD, RHYTHM and MOVEMENT, PATTERN, and any other visual effect we might be able to think of.

Simple Red Barn.jpg

To better understand these concepts, take a look at three of my related blog posts:

Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!, 10/16/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/ ,

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume I)…, 10/30/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/30/formats-for-effective-compositions/ ,

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume II)…, 11/6/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/11/06/formats-for-effective-compositions-volume-ii/ .

SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS.

More specific suggestions for a good composition include choosing only ONE center of interest. This center of interest should be the reason you are painting the picture. Strive to concentrate the most DETAIL and the greatest CONTRAST (light vs. dark) here.

Nasturtium.jpg

Further, decide on COLOR DOMINANCE during the initial planning stages of a picture. To avoid confusion, try not to bombard the viewer with every color on your palette in the same picture. Choose early on what the MOOD (feeling) will be for your project. Mood is achieved through the quality of colors chosen for use. Will your painting be cheerful, mysterious, forboding, perhaps subtle? Will you use dark, cool colors and strong contrasts to paint a dramatic, somber, or intense scene? Will you choose lighter, soft colors for a calm serenity? Or you could focus on warm, dulled colors to suggest, for example, a hot, hazy summer day. Both color TEMPERATURE and the INTENSITY (quality) OF LIGHT contribute to mood.

Snowy Rockies.jpg

Also, for a successful painting, attempt to include interesting SHAPES (two-dimensions), then creating FORM (the suggestion of three dimensions) by adding patterns of LIGHT and SHADOW. When form has been established, the artist can establish TEXTURE (after careful observation of relationships between shape, form, light, and shadow).

GO-TO REFERENCES.

Many good beginner painting books include a section about composition. Some are incomplete or confusing, and some are better than others. My recommendations for resources on composition include:

The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Keep Painting, (2017),  by Gordon MacKenzie.

Watercolor Composition Made Easy, (1999), by David R. Becker.

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles To Dramatically Improve Your Painting, (2008), by Ian Roberts.

Watercolor Success!, (2005), by Chuck Long.

Wonderful World of Watercolor: Learning and Loving Transparent Watercolor, (2008), by Mary Baumgartner.

Wren's Hen.jpg

SUMMARY.

Composition, the way things are arranged, has to do with balance, and many factors can be considered. Watercolor artist Zoltan Szabo, in Artist At Work, (p.30-31), (1979), describes good composition as a “balance of shapes, value, color, and texture”. He has said, “I keep the mood (I see), but rearrange the details to emphasize what I consider important, and play down or leave out the trivia. I like to pick a strong center of interest and subordinate everything else to complement it. I feel that composition is a personal thing, and I like my composition to be the way I decide, not the way it really is. I use the elements I find, but rearrange them in a new, more personalized balance.”

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Can’t I Just Paint?

Before I paint, do I really have to plan? It’ll spoil the mood. Can’t I just paint?

So many factors seem to be pushing an artist to just get started quickly on a painting. We may feel inspired, excited, or the colors in the sky may be changing fast, or the weather may be cold or threatening rain. While there’s no reason we can’t occasionally jump right into painting without preliminary thought, doing so will almost always make failure more likely.

Time spent in thoughtful preparation, on the other hand, is usually well spent. Planning ahead and thinking about your goals for the painting do NOT in any way stifle creativity! You will still evaluate your work as you go along, as well as react and adjust to what is happening on your paper. Only when you have clearly defined your objectives will you be able to exploit developments as they take place during the painting process.

Simple white building.jpg

 

Take the time to DESIGN your picture. Don’t jump the gun. Study your subject for a while before starting to paint. Think about what it is that attracted you – that should be the primary statement or BIG IDEA in your painting. Everything else should be subordinate.

Ask yourself what is your focal point? What is your painting about? Think about what you want to say before you start! WHAT do you hope to achieve and HOW are you going to achieve it? Without some clear objectives, you probably will have difficulty creating something extraordinary. 

Stormy sky.jpg

 

So, to create a better painting , consider what you will emphasize in the picture. Eliminate anything that might compete with or distract from the ONE focal point and main idea. You shouldn’t try to include every daunting detail in a scene. Instead, it pays to NARROW your vision and SIMPLIFY your subject.

The key to simplifying the image you’re painting is doing CAREFUL PLANNING as well as understanding GOOD COMPOSITION. See these blog posts for more information about composition.  Read Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!, 10/16/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/. Also, check out Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!, 7/16/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/07/16/simplify-your-watercolors-by-focusing-on-shapes/ .

MTS.jpg

 

Generally, good design includes foreground or a ‘lead-in’ to draw your viewer into the picture, a strong focus, and framing or supporting details. But sometimes surrounding details can be reduced, contrast around the center of interest can be increased, or features can be rearranged or eliminated completely to simplify and improve the picture. Cropping an image can be extremely helpful.

The SIMPLER your shapes, the more POWER your picture can have. It actually takes more effort to create a bold simple painting than to jump right into putting paint to paper, struggling to work out any problems as you go along.

Forsythia.jpg

 

Artist Bill Vrscak believes “the simplest statements mean the most.” He also says “A bold, simple statement respects the viewer’s intelligence. Do your viewers a favor: Don’t bore them with extraneous detail. Make your point and get out.” Further, he suggests LEAVING OUT tiny shapes that can cause confusion, large dark areas, insignificant details, and too much surface detail.

To improve you painting, forget about ‘reproducing’ nature. Start to REARRANGE it! Simplify to make your subject more interesting and effective than you found it.

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