How to Paint Shadows in Watercolor

Mar 01, 2023

Are you looking to add more realism to your watercolor paintings? If so, understanding how to paint shadows is one of the best ways to improve your art. Learn how to add dimensionality, realism, and depth to your watercolor paintings with these professional tips on how to paint shadows.

What are the Basics of Painting Shadows in Watercolors?

A good first step to improving shadows in your paintings is to pay attention to the way that shadows appear. Knowing some basics about the formation of shadows can go a long way toward creating more believable light and shadow in your watercolor paintings. 

As you observe the nuance of shadows, pay special attention to the following:

Cast shadows: Cast shadows are the shadows that are projected by an object onto the ground or other surface. They give a viewer information regarding the object’s relationship with its surroundings and indicate the intensity and direction of the light source. Cast shadows connect to the object that casts them and get lighter as the shadow gets further from the object. 

Look around you. Does your coffee cup create a shadow on your desk? Maybe you have a pencil laying next to you that suggests its shape with a slight shadow. Look at a hanging picture frame and notice that it has darkened a part of the wall next to it. These are cast shadows. 

Notice what light source is contributing to the shadow you see. Observe them in different lighting throughout the day. This attention to everyday life can attune your eye and help you make decisions during a painting. 

Form Shadow:  Without form shadows, the subjects in your painting will appear 2-dimensional and less integrated into your scene. Form shadows are shadows on an object that indicate their relationship with the light source. These shadows typically have softer edges than cast shadows and contribute to the 3-dimensional shape of objects in your 2-dimensional painting. Form shadows are often referred to as the shading on an object. 

In the same way that you did for cast shadows, look at the objects around you. Do you notice that one side of your coffee mug is lighter than the other because it is closer to your light source? Where is the form shadow darkest? Are the ridges of the cup reflecting light differently than the exterior? This noticing can go a long way toward helping you paint shadows in watercolor.

Shape of shadows: The shape of shadows has to do with the direction and intensity of the light source that is creating the shadow. Often, a shadow mimics the shape of the object itself.

To bring some unity to your paintings, try connecting the shadows to the object to ground them in your scene. Oftentimes, if I have figures that I'm painting, I will connect to the bottom of the figure right into the shadow and make it all one big connected piece. Rather than painting shadows in a disconnected, separate way, make your shadow a part of those large connected shapes you’re creating in your painting. This can bring more unity to your scene.

What Colors Should I Use When Creating Watercolor Shadows?

The first thing we need to stop doing is painting our shadows too dark

Remember - when you take a photo for reference, your camera is exposing for either light or dark. It can't really expose for both. So often, you'll see that the sky is completely blown out or the shadows are too dark, so they lack detail and color. We lose that transparency in the shadow area. 

So what colors should we use, though? Your instinct might be to paint them grey or black, but this can quickly turn an interesting painting into a drab, boring scene.  Painting a large area all one color, mixture, and consistency has a way of zapping the interest out of your scene.

There are so many colors inside of shadows that we can explore, and when you can tap into these, it makes your paintings a lot more exciting and interesting.

What you may not realize is that shadows can reflect the ambient color that's around them. 

In this book on color and light, there’s a simple photograph that illustrates this point. If you take a look at this picture of this soccer ball, you can see how the top of this ball that's in shadow reflects the blue light of the sky, and the bottom part of it reflects the green light that's bouncing up off the grass.

This is something that we want to pay attention to throughout our scene. It makes painting shadows so much more fun and interesting when you can incorporate some color. 

One of my favorite subjects to paint that illustrates this concept perfectly is a car. A car has a reflective surface, so you'll notice that the top of the car is often more of a blue color. The sides and some of the downward facing areas of the car, on the other hand, can be more of a warm color because light is bouncing off of the buildings, the road, the other warmer colors around the scene.

 *from Artists' Masters: Color and Light

When I'm painting the shadows of a car, I like to mix in some coolness on the top of the car that meets some warmer colors on the sides and the bottom of the car. I just let these mix wet-into-wet. 

When you’re painting an outdoor scene, upward facing surfaces can reflect cool light because they are facing the blue of the sky. Side facing and downward facing surfaces can reflect warmth or what other colors are around them. 

 *from Artists' Masters: Color and Light

What are Specific Painting Techniques for Creating Shadows in Watercolor Art?

  • Incorporate color in your shadows with glazing: Glazing is just a term used to describe the washes we paint in watercolor - the layering of colors to create our final impression. Don’t only think of your shadows at the very end of a painting. Consider the shape and colors you want your shadows to have from the first wash. Begin to integrate them into your painting from the start.
  • Don’t use black: There is no need for the starkness of black - or the drabness of grey - when you can use dynamic and exciting colors in your shadows. Look at the surrounding colors in your scene and think about how they might be reflected in your shadows. Use these instead.  
  • Connect your shadows to the large, connected shape of the painting: Don’t miss an opportunity with your shadows by painting them in a disconnected way. When you’re trying to find that connected shape in your second wash, consider the shadows. They can be an integral part of your painting - not just an afterthought.  


  • Vary the intensity of shadow: When you’re looking at shadows in real life, you’ll notice that the darkest part is directly surrounding the object that is casting the shadow. This is often called the occlusion shadow. As it extends from there, though, it gets lighter and more transparent. Consider this while you’re painting and taper the intensity of the shadow.
  • Be creative and experiment: My final recommendation is to have fun when you paint your shadows. Mix in some warm colors, some cool colors, and just play a little bit. Just as with the other parts of your painting, infuse your creativity into your shadows.
  • Connect your shadow to the object that is casting the shadow: Whether your shadow is under a car, across a field, or cast onto a building, make sure that it originates from the object that is blocking light and casting the shadow.  

What is the Benefits of Learning to Paint Watercolor Shadows?

When you can start to think of the shadows as another extension that can contribute to the feeling of light, in the feeling of the environment, of the scene, rather than just a gray and bland dead area of the painting, we can introduce some believability and some visual excitement into our scene. 

With these tips for creating and adding shadows to your watercolor paintings, you can take your art to a whole new level. Practice often and know that with every painting you do, you're getting better and better at creating realistic paintings that have depth, light and shading. 


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