From Newsletter 165

Painting Shadows

by Greg Allen

After the portrait workshop he conducted recently for Watercolour New Zealand, top Australian watercolourist Greg Allen talked to Sue Wild and John Toft over a beer about painting shadows.

Greg maintains that there are two things you need to think about when painting shadows. First, what is a shadow and how does it look to us and secondly, the part shadows play in the overall design of a painting.

What is a shadow? - ‘A shadow is the inability of the sun to hit the ground. When you’re looking at a shadow you’re only looking at an absence of sunlight, not a total absence of light. The remaining light that falls into a shadow is the rest of the blue sky and that’s why shadows are blue-mauve. When you’re out of the sunlight you’re not out of the light, you’re only out of the white light. The more distant a shadow is it can be bluish-mauve on a light surface but the other thing you need to remember is that if we need to inform ourselves about what the real colour of the shadow is we can say “Oh well, there’s a shadow over green grass. It’s still green grass in the shadow. It’s just shadowed green grass.”

Shadows in a work of art

‘If you really want my total answer to shadows in a work of art,’ says Greg, ‘we need not talk about shadows as a scientific phenomenon at all. You’ve got to completely change tack and realise that what we’re doing in painting is creating pleasing shapes, and that is the real nub of the problem. A bad painting will have bad shapes. The power, the dynamic, the appeal of a good work of art depends on its shapes being arranged in an interesting way. When you arrange things in a boring way you get a boring painting. When you arrange things in an interesting way you get an interesting painting.

In that context shadows are just shapes that you control and when you think like that you can’t actually let real life totally dictate your shadows. You’ve got to turn off from the information that you’re seeing in front of you at a particular time in the painting and say, “The shadows tell me that I’m going to put lots of sharp edges all the way down at the bottom left but lots of sharp edges against a light bitumen road is going to drag the eye all the way down there,” so you’re not going to do that even though you see the shadows doing that in real life.

So you can look at the shadows scientifically without being a painter who understands shapes and patterns and record them well enough to look real but if you’re not careful this can work to the detriment of your painting. You’ve got to realise that shadows are a very malleable thing. A shadow is something that is so easily manipulated by the good artist.’

How Good Artists Paint Shadows

Amanda Hyatt and many other artists will actually close out the whole front of the painting with shadows and what that does is deliberately drag the eye to the high contrast in the middle of the picture. What that is, is total manipulation of the shadow beyond what the shadow is actually doing.

It’s the artist using shadow as a device, as a system of eye control - and that’s the way you’ve really got to look at shadows. They’re just another component to be manipulated by the artist. You don’t treat them with absolute reverence to the detriment of the painting. In many instances you’ll tweak the shadow. If the scene you’re working on is 2pm in the afternoon, you want to do shadows at 5pm because you know they’re going to be longer and more beautiful. You’ve got to create attractive shapes with your shadows.

So there are two aspects to painting shadows. It’s understanding that the blue light thing is the reason for many shadows having a bluemauve appearance but there’s still a function of the thing that the shadow’s falling on. But if you just treat it like that in isolation you aren’t really thinking like a proper painter and if you’re a good painter who knows that the real secret is pleasing shapes and patterns in a painting, you’ve got to allow that particular philosophy to override the randomness of what Mother Nature provides on any given day.

Shadows as a device to direct the eye to the area of interest

Are you going to record, are you going to be a reporter, or are you the better artist who transcends reporting? Because reporting is really only the beginning. The beginner artists, the reasonably proficient ones, the best thing they can do is report and they report for the first 5 years of their art career but after that you’ve got to go beyond the idea of reportage - that is what it is - and then you’re going to change
those shadows and make them look better.

And that’s the real secret of being a good realist artist: you bring out the best elements of the clouds in the sky; you bring out the best moment of light in the landscape and you bring out the best arrangement of what shadows could possibly do in your painting.

Watercolour NZ


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