By Brigitte Schreyer, SCA

Transparent Watercolour — Making Shadows Important

In Don Juan, the Romantic poet Lord Byron wrote, "there Rembrandt made his darkness light".

This quotation about the renowned seventeenth-century Dutch master reveals an essential aspect of many, if not all, great works of art: Darkness is just as important as light in a composition and this rule is especially true in a watercolour.

There are many ways to make the dark areas of your watercolours as important as the light ones.

Q. The shadows in my watercolours look lifeless and dull. What can I do?

A. It is important not to underestimate the impact reflected light has on the shadows in a subject. To create an accurate effect I will often drop colours of the object or surrounding objects into the shadow colour I have laid down while the paint is still wet.

For example, if I have a red and a yellow onion on a tabletop, I will add some pinks and reds into the shadow of a red onion and some raw or burnt sienna into that of a yellow onion. This will make the shadows radiant and translucent.

Q. Most of my watercolours look flat and uninteresting. How can I change that?

A. Your values are too even throughout your painting. Try emphasizing the shadows in your painting, especially around the centre of interest, which should be the most detailed part of your painting. Give the shadows another glaze or two and watch the painting glow and become more exciting.

Q. How can I make my watercolour landscape look exciting and luminous, even though it is not a sunny day?

A. Believe it or not, the sun is always the light source in outdoor painting, even on cloudy days when the shadows are soft and diffused. I would paint the shadows with a warmer hue and softer edges.

Adding some warm colours into your grey skywash can also make your sunless landscape look luminous.

Q. How can I avoid shadows in my watercolours looking like dark holes?

A. I always say "there is life in the shadows". By this I mean that you can also see details in the shadows and you should put a few more drybrush strokes back into the shadow colours after the paint has dried.

For instance, when I depict wood grain with shadows, I will enhance the details of the wood grain in the shadow area once more after the shadow glaze has dried, because the original drybrush strokes might have been completely lost after applying the shadows.

Q. I have a series of photographs from my last holiday depicting a beautiful sunset but the palm trees and shadows look black and dead. How should I paint them?

A. This is a backlit situation. Photographs should be used only as a reference, because very often photos will exhibit shadow as black and dead. I'm more interested in creating a painting than worrying about shutter speeds, lighting conditions, or whether or not a laboratory has developed an image with too much red or green in it.

While gazing at that sunset, you probably saw some of the details in the palm trees, etc., which the photos do not show. Paint your sunset sky first and after it is dry paint the foreground trees. This would reflect the colour of the sky. Then glaze a cool colour over the palm trees and shadows and keep on glazing until you feel there is enough contrast. Stop before you get 'dead darks'. Add some details after the shadows have dried.

Voila! A vibrant painting with exciting contrast of light and dark.

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