Get Creative at Home: Cast a Shadow

High Museum of Art
Mar 12 · 5 min read

Learn how to use shadows to ground your artworks in real space and time.

By Melissa Katzin, Manager of Family Programs, High Museum of Art

Pointilist painting, in yellows, greens, and blues, depicting a boy in a straw hat that casts a distinct shadow on his left shoulder.
Still life painting of yellows grapes and dark purple grapes on a stone counter.
Henri Jean Guillaume Martin (French, 1860–1943), Portrait of a Young Boy Wearing a Straw Hat, 1890–1895; Frederick Stone Batcheller (American, 1837–1889), Grapes and Pears, 1877

Have you ever noticed the shadows in a painting? The lights and shadows might not be the first thing you see in a work of art, but artists have been using shadows to emphasize or hide elements in their art for hundreds of years.

Shadows help a painting look more convincing — objects in real life have shadows, so we see paintings with shadows as more naturalistic, or more like what we see in real life.

Seymour Joseph Guy was an American genre painter — he painted scenes of everyday life, like we see in Dinnertime below. Though Guy lived primarily in New York City during his career, he lived for a short time in the farming town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, where he likely would have experienced a scene like Dinnertime. In the painting, a woman blows on a horn to signal that it’s mealtime.

A woman in an apron stands with one hand on her hip and the other blowing a small horn as she stands by her red house on a sunny day.
Seymour Joseph Guy (American, born England, 1824–1910), Dinnertime, 1880

Look closely at the painting. Notice how the artist used the contrasts between the lights and shadows to show the time of day — dinnertime! Although today we usually eat dinner around six or seven p.m., people in the nineteenth century ate dinner around three or four p.m.

Imagine you’re inside Dinnertime. What would it feel like to be in this painting? Do you think the weather would be hot or cold? What sounds would you hear? If you were a character in Dinnertime, what would you be doing?

While Guy probably thought about the composition of his painting, or how he wanted it to look, artists like George Benjamin Luks often painted outside in front of their subject, called painting en plein air. In Winter, High Bridge Park, Luks’s quick brushstrokes mimic the lively winter scene. Look closely at the shadows in the painting — what colors did the artist use to represent the shadows on the white snow?

Painting of people playing in the snow in the late afternoon in an urban setting with leafless trees.
Painting of people playing in the snow in the late afternoon in an urban setting with leafless trees.
George Benjamin Luks (American, 1867–1933), Winter, High Bridge Park, 1912–1913

Shadows are created by an object blocking a light source, which could be the sun, a lamp, or even the moon. In Winter, High Bridge Park, what do you think the light source is? What direction is the light coming from?

Though Luks and Guy used lights and shadows to suggest the time of day or the season, other artists have used light and dark to convey emotions.

Painting with dramatic lighting that depicts the denial of St. Peter.
Painting with dramatic lighting that depicts the denial of St. Peter.
Nicolas Tournier (French, 1590–1638), The Denial of St. Peter, ca. 1630

Nicholas Tournier depicts a moment of spiritual crisis in The Denial of St. Peter. Here, the shadows are cast by the people, with their faces hidden in the shadows or accentuated in the bright light. Tournier used these dramatic contrasts to convey the intensity of the moment.

The deep shadows and intense light that Tournier used is called chiaroscuro (pronounced kee-AR-oh-SKOOR-oh). Chiaroscuro was a popular technique in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries referring to the extreme contrasts of light and shadow that fill an entire painting, like in Tournier’s The Denial of St. Peter.

Get Creative at Home

Still life painting of a tabletop with bottles and glasses of wine next to cheese and crackers.
Still life painting of a tabletop with bottles and glasses of wine next to cheese and crackers.
John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Bottles, Wine, and Cheese, 1857

Experiment with shadows!

Find an object or a group of objects, like eyeglasses, food, trees, or even a person. On a piece of paper, use a pencil to sketch the object. Pay attention to your light source — are you using the sun, or a bright lamp, to cast the light onto your object?

Use your pencil to add shading onto the object. Is there an area of it that’s darker? This is probably on the side facing away from the light source. Experiment with shading with different lines, dots, and dashes to make your shadows darker.

Want more tips on how to shade? Check out these shading techniques.

Then, draw the cast shadow — this is where the object blocks the light from hitting a surface, like the glasses in George Cope’s A Pair of Spectacles or the pink figure in Rocío Rodríguez’s The Command. Pay attention to the shape of the shadow.

Impressionistic brush strokes depict a red and a black figure dancing or doing acrobatics on a warm yellow background.
Painting of a European alleyway with pecking birds and a woman carrying a heavy bucket through an alley door.
Highly realistic painting of a pair of old fashioned spectacles hanging on a wall.
Rocío Rodriguez (American, born Cuba, 1952), The Command, 1988; Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (French, 1803–1860), Farm Yard, 1849; George Cope (American, 1855–1929), A Pair of Spectacles, 1897

Once you’ve completed your drawing, try another using a different light source! If you used the sun as your light before, how would your drawing change at a different time of day? If you used a lamp, what would happen if you changed the angle of the light or moved your object closer or farther away from the light?

We’d love to see your creations! Share your artworks on Instagram and tag #HighMuseumatHome.

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