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Using Shadows and Highlights to Create Depth in Painting

by | Jul 4, 2023 | Art Lessons | 0 comments

Shadows and highlights are powerful tools for creating depth and dimension in painting. By carefully controlling the placement and intensity of light and shadow in a composition, you can create a sense of three-dimensionality and bring your paintings to life. Here are some tips for using shadows and highlights in painting:

Study the Light Source

To create realistic shadows and highlights, it’s important to understand the position and quality of the light source. Observing the way light falls on objects in real life can help you make informed decisions when creating shadows and highlights in your paintings.

Light bends and bounces. We have the tendency to think that light is sharp and straight. And, while that may be true in a dramatic Caravaggio painting, it could be a completely different story in contemporary landscape painting.

In the Caravaggio, the light creates sharp lines, while in the Monet, the light feels soft. In both of them, the light is consistent throughout the picture plane. 


Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. By playing with value, you can create a sense of depth in your painting. Shadows are darker in value than the surrounding areas, while highlights are lighter.

The full value range is often expressed on a 1-10 scale. Below the range, with the white rectangle hard to see when the background of your screen is white.

Let’s de-saturate the colors from the previous photos of the images, leaving just the values:

The Caravaggio painting has high contrast between the darks and lights. The Impressionistic Monet is high key – medium values to the light, no dark-darks. Paintings can have all the values, the full 1-10 range, but often you find that paintings are high key, middle key, or low key. That doesn’t mean that all their values fall into the limited range, but most do.


Be Consistent

You can pick whatever key you want to use for your painting. However, applying that key consistently throughout the painting is essential to creating realistic and believable depth. If you aren’t sure what your values are, take a photo with your phone of your work and desaturate the color. Make sure you desaturate, and not using a filter. The filters are preset modifications that adjust colors and values.

Choose your Warm and Cool Values Carefully

There is a belief that with warm highlights we should use cool shadows. This can often be true. It is more accurate, and more helpful, to think “warmer” highlights mean “cooler” shadows. It could still be the warm color, but just slid a bit towards the cooler side. It can be a grayed down version by adding the compliment. It can be a lot of things. The best bet is to look! Remember, color is relative.

Also, remember that a shadow is falling UPON an object. (You can think of it as the object casting dark light, instead of shadow.) That means that it has to have some of the color of the object in it. For example, a blue ball on red table casts a dark red shadow – red with a touch of blue added.

In the above, #1 is the highlight, #2 is the shadow on the object, and #3 is the shadow on the floor or table. #4 is where you can see the light of the object bouncing onto the surface. In the first two diagrams, the table is a neutral gray. It would be hard to tell what kind of influence it has on the object. But, look at the third image, the one with the volleyball. Notice how #2 color square is brown. Very dark brown! It is hard to believe it to be so!  Value studies with real observation are so important because they show us what is really happening, not just what we think would happen. 

Step Back & Make Adjustments

Don’t be afraid to make adjustments to your shadows and highlights as you work. It’s important to step back and assess your work regularly to make sure that the shadows and highlights are creating the desired effect.

Using shadows and highlights is a powerful way to create depth and dimension in painting. By following these tips, you can learn to effectively use light and shadow in your paintings and bring your compositions to life. Remember to experiment, be consistent, and make adjustments as needed to create the desired effect.