The Colour Of Shadows


Students often find it hard to see the colour of shadows, compared with seeing the local colour of the lights. There is, however, a simple scientific formula for determining the correct colour.

Before impressionism, painters generally treated shadows as completely flat, dark, warm areas. When Monet painted his series of haystacks, his main goal was to show that in reality both the colour of light and the colour of shadow change dramatically depending of the time of day. Nevertheless, students often find it hard to see the colour of shadows, compared with seeing the local colour of the lights. There is, however, a simple scientific formula for determining the correct colour.

It is a common misconception that a shadow is the absence of light. Although this untruth is often told to students of drawing and painting, as a way of explaining how values can be used to describe form, its fallacy is self-evident if you simply look into a shadow with your eyes fully open. If there were no light in the shadow, you would not be able to see anything at all, whereas you almost always can see into shadows in nature. A better description would be to say that shadows are the absence of the primary light source.

The light in shadows is from secondary light sources such as ambient light or reflected light. As such, the colour of any given shadow can be determined by combining the colour of all the sources of secondary light, and then accounting for the local colour of the surface onto which the shadow is falling.

In studios with north facing light, this tends to lead to warm shadows, because the secondary sources of light (in this case reflected light from walls, floor and objects in the room) are warmer than the bluish light of north-facing window. Outdoors, in direct sunlight, the shadows tend to appear bluish, because their light is mainly coming from the ambient blue of the sky, as opposed to the white-yellow light of the direct sun which is illuminating the lights of the form.

This painting by Joaquin Sorolla of a fisherman at Valencia, illustrates the warm light, cool shadow contrast of direct sunlight.


To achieve this intense colour, Sorolla used a palette of cobalt violet, rose madder, all the cadmium reds, cadmium orange, all the cadmium yellows, yellow ochre, chrome green, viridian, Prussian blue, cobalt blue and French ultramarine and lead white.

Such an extended palette is not always necessary however, especially when painting indoors subjects. Anders Zorn’s painting of his wife, Emma, reading was painted in his usual palette of lead white, ivory black, cadmium red and yellow oche. As you can see in the cool north light illuminating her face is made up mostly of white, while the shadows are very warm mixes of black and red and ochre.


However, as always with painting and drawing, the overarching rule is to not blindly follow a formula but to paint what you see. This is extremely important in the case of shadows, where the colour is often highly varied due to the presence of reflected lights.

In Sorolla’s Lunch on the Boat, below, the lighting situation is complicated one step further: Not only are there multiple sources of reflected light within the boat, but light filtering through the sail, which has been thrown over the mast to create and awning, is providing a warm-yellow source of secondary illumination. This setup creates an overall composition of a warm shadow area taking up the main field of interest, compared with the comparatively cooler direct sunlight beyond. However, with the field of warm shadow there is great variation between the upwards facing planes, which receive more of the sail’s yellow illumination and the downwards facing planes which do not.


Author: Tom Greenwood

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