Doubt of a Shadow

Oil Painting Elements–The Shadow

Shadows are very important in defining the form of any object, but they are often the least understood and most difficult element to master in painting. Most importantly, shadows must have transparency, or light in them, to be effective. Going by the old rule, “warm light casts cool shadows; cool light casts warm shadows”, is a good start but doesn’t fit every situation and may be dangerous to rely on. It is far more accurately stated this way: “warm light generally casts cooler shadows and cool light generally casts warmer shadows. What is important is seeing accurately and understanding what is before us and why.

Fontainebleau Forest by Claude Monet, 1865.
Fontainebleau Forest by Claude Monet, 1865.

The color and temperature of cast shadows are influenced largely by four things: the color of the light source, the color of the surface that the illuminated object is sitting upon, the color of any light cast into the shadow from a secondary source, and any light reflected back into the shadow from an adjacent object or surface. If, for instance, warm light is hitting an object sitting on a warm colored surface, is our shadow still going to be cool? Of course it must be, but we are talking about a small degree of coolness in that case. The accuracy of that fine distinction is critical.

Look at Fontainebleau Forest by Monet to see this principle in action and his solution to the problem. In this case, the warm sunlight is also filtered through a green canopy, which colors some of the light before it hits the ground, complicating matters. Monet’s handling of the shadows underneath the trees is very sensitive and sophisticated. There are both warms and cools!

In the watercolor, Corfu: Lights and Shadows, John Singer Sargent chose to make the shadows the main subject of the painting. Corfu is a Greek island in the Ionian sea, bathed in very warm summer light. Sargent observed both warm shadows and cool shadows on the same building, cast by the same trees.

Corfu: Lights and Shadows by John Singer Sargent, 1909.
Corfu: Lights and Shadows
by John Singer Sargent, 1909.

The warm shadows on the left side of the building appear to be influenced by the strong warm light reflected back up from the ground, while the cool shadows on the adjacent side are influenced more by the direct light of the sky. His task was made somewhat easier by his use of watercolor – transparency in the shadows comes with the medium. However there is only one chance to get those strokes the correct color, value and shape! Therein lies our amazement at his accomplishment.

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–John and Ann



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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

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