Knowing how to draw vibrant shadows is key to realistic art. It doesn’t matter what medium you prefer, if your shadows are weak, contrast is weak.
Weak contrast makes for flat artwork, and we all know flat artwork doesn’t usually look very realistic.
So how to do you get strong contrast? Push those dark values as far as you can with strong, vibrant shadows!
Value is the most important thing to get right in your art. You need to have strong highlights and strong shadows.
But shadows can be so difficult to get right, as a recent reader question proved. There are so many different ways to draw shadows, the reader wanted to know the best way.
There really isn’t a “best way” that works with every drawing. You style of work, your subjects, and the colors you have available all play a role in how you draw shadows.
Five Ways to Draw Vibrant Shadows
There are as many different ways to draw shadows as there are artists. Sooner or later, every artist develops their own way of doing things.
Lets start with five red balls. I’ve drawn them all with the same color (Scarlet Lake) and to the same degree. There’s a decent range of values, but nothing stunning.
Use darker values of the same colors to draw shadows.
I “finished” the first ball with the same color simply by adding more layers of Scarlet Lake. The darker the values, the more layers.
The darkest values are burnished with Scarlet Lake to fill in the paper tooth and make the shadow darker.
Use darker versions of the local colors to draw shadows.
From this point on, there are two important things to remember.
First, don’t add the new colors only to the shadows. Shade them over most of the middle values, too. Fade them out just like you fade the base (local) color, or you may end up with a shadow that looks “stuck on.”
Second, alternate layers of the new color and the local color. You should almost always finish with a layer of local color, too. That gives the shadow the look of being a darker version of the local color, rather than an entirely different color.
The shadow and darker middle values in the second ball are Crimson Lake. Crimson Lake is a darker red with a hint of blue. The resulting shadow is darker than the rest of the red, but still not very vibrant.
Add Black to dark versions of the local colors.
Black was layered over the shadow in the third ball. You might think this is the logical choice for darkening shadows, but as you can see, it didn’t really make the shadow very vibrant. Instead, the shadow looks more gray. That may work for some drawings.
Add a complementary color to draw shadows.
I layered Grass Green into the shadow on the fourth ball. Green is the complement of red, so you could add red to the shadow of a green ball. Any complement naturally darkens and tones down the color it’s added to.
Mix a dark brown and dark blue to draw shadows.
The best way to draw shadows is by mixing other colors. My favorite colors for shadows are dark brown and dark blue. Combined in alternating layers, they create lively dark values that rival black. That combination works with most medium to dark-colored objects and I’ve used them with great success on horses and landscapes.
For lighter colored objects, you’ll want to replace these colors with lighter shades.
Those are five ways to draw vibrant shadows.
There are other ways, too, so the best advice is to experiment. Do like I did with a series of balls or any other shape. The drawings don’t need to be polished pieces of fine art to help you find the best way to draw vibrant shadows in your own work.