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Warm Light Makes Cooler Shadows

by Lori Woodward on 5/11/2011 9:24:40 AM

Today's post is by Lori Woodward.  Lori earned a bachelor's degree in Art Education from the University of Arizona.  As a freelance writer for various art publications, she has written more than 60 published articles for  American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and International Artist Magazines since 1996. Her paintings, along with instructional articles, have been featured in Watercolor Magazine since 2007, and in American Artist's Highlights Issue, Step by Step 2011, with the article: "Moving into Acrylics".  Woodward has co-authored the book, "Watercolor Step by Step" a Walter Foster Publication, and authored a chapter for Calvin Goodman's "Art Marketing Handbook for the 21st Century".  She has been a member of the Putney Painters since 2004, a small invitational group of painters who are mentored by Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.


Before I studied with Richard Schmid, I understood how to use color and value in my landscapes, but in a less scientific way than I do now. I knew that shadows are darker than the sunlit objects, and I even knew that the reflected light in the shadows was always darker than anything in the light.


Furthermore, I could match the local color of my objects fairly well, but that's about where my knowledge with color ended. I'm sure some of my instructors, along the line, explained the concept of: Warm Light = Cool Shadows, Cool Light = Warm Shadows, but when Richard explained how the temperature of light and shadow varies depending on the color of the light, my brain's light bulb finally lit up (pun intended).



The Golden Season (Branch Creek) - by Michael Godfrey oil 8x8

Notice in Michael Godfrey's painting above how the foreground rocks and shore in the light are warmer (more orange) than the same objects in the shadow (where they're more blue/gray)


For this post, I'll use the artwork of Micheal Godfrey and Lisa Mitchell to demonstrate this first segment where I'll discuss - warm light, means cool hued shadows. I could paint my own examples, but that would take me too long; I'd never get this post finished, and besides, these artists visually articulate these concepts so well that it doesn't make sense to look any further. Yes, I do have permission from the artists to use their images!


To begin, let's talk about the color of sunlight on a sunny day. Near dawn and dusk, the light is very warm (you knew that, eh?). Without going into talking about how prisms work and a lot of other scientific facts (which my husband would love to discuss), I'll just say that early/late day sunlight is warm because red light waves are longer and can pass through a lot of atmosphere. When the sun is straight overhead, there is a thinner amount of atmosphere, so we see the shorter, bluer waves of light.



Moving On, by Lisa Mitchell Pastel 18x24

In the painting above, the areas of grass in the shadows takes on a bluer hue, while the areas in the warm sunlight show some orange and yellow.


You're probably wondering why in the world I'm making such a simple concept sound so complex... because the color of light is complex.  I'll explain why... When light is warm, the shadows are cooler in color - slightly bluer and often grayer.  BUT! You can't just paint all the light areas orange and the shadows blue. We still have to take into account the local color of the object. So when a green tree is lit by the setting sun, the part of that green foliage in the shadow is bluer while the green in the late day sunlight has touches of warm yellow and orange in the green. If the grass in the landscape is partly in light and partly in shadow, the part in the light will show orange and warm yellow tones, while the shadow areas show more blue/green.


Take a good look at the images I've provided, and you'll see what I'm describing.


Room To Breathe - by Lisa Mitchell pastel 18x24

In Lisa's painting, the foreground grass in the shadow is blue/green while in the sunlight, this same grass contains warmer yellows and orange.


Likewise, if an autumn tree (rust colored) is lit by the warm morning or evening light, the part in the sunlight is a definite orange/red - a clean clear color, while its shadow counterpart is slightly bluer and grayer, yet still retains the color of autumn foliage.



Shenandoah River Shadows - by Micheal Godfrey 24x36

In Michael's painting above, the season is autumn, and where the warm sunlight passes along the tree foliage, the leaves tend toward orange... which would be expected since their local color is yellow/orange. However, where these same trees are in shadow, the foliage is darker, grayer and slightly bluer... meaning cooler in hue.


In later posts, I'll talk about the color of light and shadow on a sunny mid-day scene and on an overcast/gray day. Now here's something else I learned from Richard. The darkest darks are always "hot"... and although I've tried to observe this in the landscape,  it's not apparent to me. One thing I do know: When I paint my darkest areas warm (instead of a dark blue) they look much darker. I'm not talking about using red, but a very warm brown or a bit of alizarin crimson to warm the darkest areas in foliage or at the base of a nearby stand of trees, or even the cracks between rocks.  As I said, that'll be explained on a later post.


Please don't hesitate to ask for clarification if any of this seems confusing. I'm happy to share and explain. For those of you who already understand these concepts, I hope you enjoyed looking at the lovely paintings. For others, some of whom may be struggling with painting believable color relationships, I hope this gave you a greater understanding.

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Related Posts:

Painting Colorful Lights and Darks

Learn to Critique Your Own Artwork

Topics: FineArtViews | inspiration | Lori Woodward 

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Sandy Askey-Adams, PSA
Dear Lori..
Thank you for a great post........and the two artists whose work you offer as examples are two of my favorite artists.
Of course, I am sure they are many other' favorites too.
I would love to see their work in person someday.

How you explain the light and shadows is a wonderful lesson. THANK YOU,

Bonnie Samuel
Thanks, Lori. I not only enjoyed looking at these beautiful artworks, but learned more about color temps too. Very helpful.

mimi torchia boothby watercolors
THanks so much for the color theory, with great examples as well. I was disappointed that you found nothing that showed cold light and warm shadows.. (I might just have to try that at home myself)

Lori Woodward
Mimi, this is just the first in the series on color temperature. I'm planning on writing about cool light/warm shadows in future posts on Gray days and landscapes painted when the sun is at its apex (mid-day)

Studio artists use north light because it's cool - which makes the shadows warm. There's a reason for this... makes it easier to lighten color with white.

I'll cover the same issues with still life and flesh colors as well. But all in good time :D

Donald Fox
Very clear explanation with good examples. You obviously are a good teacher. Thanks for sharing your experience and insights. This will be helpful to others that teach.

mimi torchia boothby watercolors
awesome, thank you! I really appreciate you taking the time to do this.

Mary Maxam
Well said, and these are the perfect works to use in your explanation. While some of this seems natural,it will be excellent to refer back to when I see something going wrong and can't quite put my finger on it.

Lori, like alizarin crimson, thio violet is also a great color for shadows that need to be warmed.

Lori Woodward
Gosh, thanks everyone - it's my pleasure to share what my mentors have passed on to me. Kim, thanks for the tip.

Question: for those of you who have read my previous art marketing blogs, would you like me to mix up instructional posts with art marketing posts here? Or are you wanting me to stay with the new format of painting topics with images?

Carol McIntyre
I was just beating my head last week about warm and cool relationships -- telling myself to do a better job of remembering them while I paint. And here you are with these delightful examples. Even as an abstract fused with realism painter I need to know this info.

I live in one of those red rock regions of the country - The Garden of the Gods - so if you need photos or perhaps there are a few SW artists you know who can demonstrate cool light and warm shadows in their work.

On your question: I feel bombarded with so many marketing articles, that I would love it if you could stay with the photos and instruction posts for awhile.

Thank you!

Carol Schmauder
Thank you for sharing these wonderful tips about light and shadow. I've learned something new today and hope to improve my work with this valuable information.

The paintings you provided as examples are all wonderful.

Marian Fortunati
A very clear explanation supported with great painting examples for a very complicated topic which at least for me will need to be read, thought-about, applied and applied and applied again before I truly understand it.

Thanks Lori... I look forward to the next lesson.

Carol McIntyre
Has anyone done notans in color versus gray scale. I was wondering if one could do some warm-cool practicing using this principle. Your thoughts?

Kathy Mann

Such timely information for me! The painting I am working on has some back-lit trees. The struggle has been...bringing the shadowed leaves forward while keeping the sunlight leaves in the distance remaining where they should be. Michael's painting gave some visual help on that and I so appreciate your instruction on shadow color! Thank you!

George De Chiara
I am really enjoying these posts. I'd vote to stay with this format for a little longer.

one tip that I don't think has been mentioned is from one of Schmid's videos where he say's if a color looks muddy or chalky it's usually because it's the wrong temperature. I found this very helpful when I heard it.

Lori Woodward
George, yes - good point about the muddy colors. It's so true, and the wrong temperature shows up as mud especially on flesh tones.

I've been painting with Schmid and Guzik for 8 years, and think I'll never run out of info to write on. I've learned a lot from others as well. It's been helpful when Richard can point to an area of my painting and tell me why it doesn't look right. Lately, he's just been saying, Good Job. Phew!

It's really fun to learn the scientific reasons for the way color acts. Light and value is another biggy... I'll cover that when I get the chance.

I do put my own spin on the concepts... don't exactly repeat Richard, and I probably won't be using his images for these posts because Katie Swatland is using his images with permission, and I don't want to cut in on her lessons.

I am not a clone of Schmid, and don't think exactly the way he does. I approach painting more like Nancy Guzik does, but there are a whole lot of other painters and teachers out there that I've gained lots of great info from. I'll be talking about what I've learned from them as it fits into explanations.

Esther J. Williams
Lori, you explained it all most excellently. I have been implementing this practice for a few years. At first I was putting cool local color (nearly fully saturated color) in the shadows ten years ago. My, my, did the paintings look garish and loud! Now I balance the light family color and shadow family values, you can`t have one color in saturation without taming down the value of the other. Practice and experimenting makes perfect.
I loved the examples too, great artists!

This is a nice change to read more about the elements of art. Thank-you

Spencer Meagher
Thanks for another great article Lori. Once again you have put the cookies on the lower shelf. You have clarified and simplifed something that, for me at least, can be very confusing.

Donald Fox

I think a mixture of topics might serve more people. Everyone is at different stages with marketing and with painting. Whatever you decide, your posts are always clearly expressed and beneficial.

Donna Robillard
The explanation and examples were great - very clear,

Jo Allebach
I really appreciate the great information. It was explained so wonderfully even i get it! And the art you show for examples are so fabulous.

Lori Woodward
thanks to you all for taking the time to comment and get back to me with your thoughts. It feels good that I can go to sleep tonight knowing that my efforts were helpful and encourages me to continue.

Lori Woodward
thanks to you all for taking the time to comment and get back to me with your thoughts. It feels good that I can go to sleep tonight knowing that my efforts were helpful and encourages me to continue.

Sharon Weaver
I appreciate your posting this wonderful article. Love the paintings too. They demonstrate your color theory very well and show how using this concept will improve my paintings. Good lesson.

janet keen
Very interesting article. I agree most people don't want to know how you you made your artwork unless they are other artists.
I teach a lot so if people want to know I tell them a few things and often they will sign up for art lessons from me.

Often it's a matter of giving to get.

Denise Rose
This was very helpful to me also. I love all of your posts, but would like to continue with this type of instruction instead of mixing them with marketing ones. But I will read whatever you post!

Sheila Kirk
Your posts on color temperatures are very thorough and really make you stop and check your own work before proceeding further. - thank you

Margie Murray
Thank you for this wonderful explanation of color and value relationships. It was extremely valuable and your choice of art work to accompany the essay was perfect.

Dick Ensing
Great paintings..I would add only one comment to painting shadows. The criterion I go by and teach to my students to judge the color of a shadow is the shadow color is always the compliment of the color of the object making the shadow. This helps put one close to painting the shadow correctly.
Dick Ensing

Lianne Roussel

Thanks so much for your clear explanations on light and shadows, making it so easy to digest and understand. The examples of artwork you used showed exactly what you were teaching. You have truly inspired me to a new level of expression!!

Question: Cool Light=Warm Shadows situation: If I have a green, do I shade with yellow?

Lori Woodward
It all depends on whether your green is a warm or cool green. Shadows are darker as well as warmer. Yellow will make the green lighter, which may not work for a shadow.

I usually darken and warm my deep cool greens with a touch of transparent oxide red or burnt sienna for the warm shadows. Those are both warm browns and will warm a green.

If the green is already a yellow cool green and quite light in value, I might try adding some yellow ocher Ro the green forth shadow part, or even again a touch of burnt sienna or transparent oxide red.

The only difference between transparent oxide red and burnt sienna is that burnt sienna is more opaque and dries faster than TOR. Shadows look more "airy" when they are transparent.

Hope that helps. Remember that color temperature is relative, meaning how warm or cool a color looks depends on how warm or cool the color next to it is. So it's all trial or error in a way, and I refer to my co,or charts often... Same as found in Richard Schmid's book Alla Prima.

Susan G Holland
Lori, this was such a timely article. I am right now working on a painting of a man standing in a doorway.. with his back to the cool light outside, and his face looking into an interior that is lit by incandescent light, and is darkened.. especially when against the bright landscape outside.

Working out the cools and warms with the local color of the man himself and his jacket and's an extra challenge with backlighting.

It would be good to discuss the effect of a cast shadow and how it relates to warms and cools, and how it is different from the shadow on the object itself. I hope you will cover that in your subsequent posts.

Wonderful teaching here! Hats off to you! Susan


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