Should I use black paint for shadows?

When it comes to painting, no matter what your subject is, you need to take note of the area’s that are in full light and in shadow and choose your palette around these factors. The lighting in a painting is just as important as the composition.


Photo by Jeremy Bishop, Bali, Indonesia – Unsplash

Take a look at the image above and look closely at the area’s that are in shadow. There are a lot of them, it is a very busy photo but what you will notice is that the shadows are just darker hues of the colours already there. Now look at the area’s that the sunlight is hitting. Again, they become a lighter hue of the existing colour. This photo has been taken when the sun is high and the light is at its best. Let’s take a look at a photo taken when the sun is just rising.


Photo by Joshua Sortino, Big Sur, USA – Unsplash

Now take a look at the areas that are in shadow. The light is poor therefor the only way you can get depth and contrast when painting an image lit with poor light is by using black in your mix of paint.

In summary of the photos above, light is a main factor when it comes to choosing how dark shadows should be painted.


Let’s now explore how YOU can darken a colour, without any black paint in sight. I have painted the colour wheel using only the three primary colours and then added more colour to create the darkest hue possible for red and blue.


Colour wheel

We will start by having a look at the basic colour wheel.

Primary colours are RED, BLUE, YELLOW. Why are they called the primary colours? Because you cannot make these colours by mixing other colours together.

Secondary colours are PURPLE, ORANGE, GREEN. These colours are made by mixing two primary colours together.

Complimentary colours are the opposite colours facing each other on the colour wheel. RED & GREEN, BLUE & ORANGE, YELLOW & PURPLE.

Cool colours are BLUE, GREEN, PURPLE.

Warm colours are RED, ORANGE, YELLOW.

To darken a WARM colour, it is best to use a COOL. It does not have to be its complimentary colour.

Red dark hues
Green has been added to get a darker colour.

To darken a COOL colour you have to use another COOL colour.

Blue dark hues
Purple has been added to get a darker colour.


Compare the Pear

Black Shadow Pear

Here are two pears I have painted. Pear A has no black in it, the shadows have been created by darkening and mixing colours and it was very easy for colours to blend, mix and sit beside each other, using this process. Pear B uses only black to make shadows. Black is such a dominant colour and I have only used the tiniest amount and it was very hard to try and blend the shadow area in. I don’t think I did a very good job of it at all, I felt scared I was going to ruin the painting and therefore it is definitely the worse of the two.

Click here to watch the colour wheel and Compare the Pear video on YouTube.

It just so happened that I wrote this article after days of wet and overcast weather and looking outside trying to look at shadows was not easy because of the dull light. It’s your turn now, have a look at natural light casting shadows on objects and see what colour the shadows are. Why not have a go at Compare the Pear and see which way feels more comfortable, using colour to paint shadows or using black. You don’t have to paint a pear, a simple rock or ball will do but I do recommend you use more than one colour in your paintings.

Also worth noting, I painted the colour wheel and pears with Gouache paint, mainly because it is always close by however this article relates to all paint varieties, from water colour through to oils.

And finally, if you do give this exercise a go, please #mrsredsartroom so I can see your results as well.

Happy painting!

Mrs Red







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