[twitter-follow username=”roisincure” scheme=”dark” count=”yes”]
“Lovely use of light,” you think, as you gaze upon a particularly atmospheric watercolour. “It almost seems to glow.”
What you’re looking at is not light, exactly, but the effect of light. You’re looking at shadows cast by light. What you might think is beautifully-depicted light is in fact nothing at all – if you so much as touch a page with water or colour from your brush, the glow will disappear. On the other hand, you can do all kinds of things with shadow to enhance the light on your page.
Getting light and shade right makes all the difference to a feeling of “being there”. You can slap down all kinds of strong colour with abandon, but it’s only when you put in the shadows that the object will suddenly look like you could reach in your hand and touch it.
In this article I will explain the mechanics of adding light and shade to your sketch. I will show you four scenes showing the effect of light, scenes such as ones you might encounter in your urban sketching travels.
– Buildings in afternoon sun (a row of houses, their façades cast into shadow)
– Light through glassware (a lunch on a sunny terrace)
– Objects in soft light (ceramic jars indoors)
– Shiny or wet objects (people on a beach soaking up the sun)
All four sketches were drawn directly from life, and I’m going to present each to you in three ways.
First, I show the sketch as it was made on location, in full colour. Then I show you the same scenes broken down into their bare outlines, just to show you how simple and flat they looked before I added the effects of light, to convince you that there is nothing unobtainable when it comes to the structure of a drawing. Lastly, I show you how the sketch looks with the effect of pure light added, using just one colour. I have used indigo by Schmincke, but you can use any shade of blue or blue-grey, such as ultramarine, Payne’s grey, Prussian blue, or you can choose from lots of others. Experiment with a few.
I will show you how to identify the direction of light as it pertains to your sketch; when to use neat black ink; how to convey strong sunlight and more diffuse light; how to achieve that all-important glow; and of course leaving areas pure white to lend your sketch a light touch.
To achieve really good light and shade effects, you need three things: an accurate drawing (any type of line will do, as long as the shapes are strong), an understanding of the direction(s) and intensity of light and a knowledge of how to apply your shadow colours in layers. Add patience and you’re all set.
I will also provide a download of the outline (by Pay-Per-View. Patreon supporter can contact me for the files) so that you can practice light and shade effects at home. You can use colouring pencils on regular printing paper to great effect, or print it onto heavier paper and you’ll be able to add watercolour.
Lunch on the Terrace, Sagres, Portugal
Ceramic containers, Nice
Beach bodies in Nice, France
So let’s jump in!
Here’s how I approach making sure I represent the light and shade in my sketch to its best effect:
1. Take note of the direction the light is coming from.
2. If the sun is intermittent, wait for a point at which it is at full glare (or even half), and very lightly draw the outline of all the shadows. This must be done at the same time or your sketch will look very odd.
3. Make sure to leave the lit-up side unpainted – that is, pure white. You won’t have a glow of light unless you do this.
4. Build up your colours with as much or as little intensity as you please, and let everything dry before you add your shadows.
5. Never, ever use black watercolour paint…
6…but you can very occasionally use black ink at tiny, dense spots.
Let’s take the sketches one by one, starting with the easiest. Each offers a slightly different challenge, and I will explain and deconstruct each.
1. Houses at Pedralva, Southwest Portugal
I think the sketch of the buildings at Pedralva is the easiest because there is no blending at all involved – just blocked areas of colour.
Here’s the drawing in outline:
As you can see, it’s a very simple drawing. The beauty is in the effects of the strong afternoon sunshine. My task was to translate each of the shadows into its intensity: from the very darkest, that I could depict with a black ink pen, to the softest, where a white wall was in deep shadow. All the shadows were dark, it was just a question of how dark they were in relation to each other. This bit is KEY.
Strong vs. dark
You have constant decisions to make as a sketcher. A common one is to decide whether a colour is stronger than its neighbour. Try not to ask whether it’s “darker”, only “stronger”. In this way you can confidently paint a rich deep green door, for example, next to a white wall that happens to be in deep shadow. So the doors and window frames may or may not be DARKER than the walls surrounding them, but they are certainly STRONGER and therefore you can afford to paint them in vibrant, strong colour with more than one layers.
Layering your colours correctly is vital when trying to portray light and shade believably. You must allow each layer to dry completely before adding the next layer. If you do not, you risk lifting the paint underneath that hasn’t quite dried, or making your colour muddy, or making a “bloom” or cauliflower. This applies to all layering, whether shadows or colour. One of the commonest issues intructors see with beginners is not enough layers of paint.
Try to determine which areas of shadow want only one layer of colour, and which need more. Here’s what the sketch looks like when painted in one colour only (indigo). The advantage of this is that you can clearly see which colours are stronger (ie have more layers and look darker next to their neighbour).
Can you see how each shade of indigo would translate to a number of layers, or a bright colour? Practice it so that when you’re next making an urban sketch, it will be easy to see how strong your area of shadow needs to be, from the lightest (a façade in shade) to the darkest (a shadow cast on the ground).
Conversely, remember to keep the lit-up side completely unpainted. Anything that is in strong sunlight should be left untouched, even if it’s not white, such as the cobbled street. Colour it even the lightest Naples yellow and you will lose the glow.
Achieving an even layer of colour
The best way to avoid brush strokes over a large area is to wet the area first with clean water. I did that for the parts of the houses in shadow, but you must be careful not to let the water travel anywhere you don’t want colour – it will flow wherever there is water.
The sun moves, and you must not dally when putting down your shadows. If the sun is close to its zenith it will cause big changes in shadows in a short time, so it’s a good idea to trace the shape of the shadows with a very thin nib.
When to use black ink
Sparingly! The only time I use black ink is for tiny areas where no light at all is getting in, such as the narrow slit of a window with no glass. I never use black ink for large areas of shadow as it can look dead.
2. Lunch on the terrace at Sagres, southwest Portugal
This is a useful exercise because light filtering through glass behaves in a transparent way. I am not sure of the physics but I know that if you get it right your sketch will be light and airy.
Here’s the line drawing of the objects on the table. I’ve left out all traces of shadow, as if there was no sun at all.
The shadows are fresh and light. You will keep them a bit darker where the meet the base of the glass. This is easily achieved by starting at the base (you probably would do that anyway) with a loaded brush, and letting it peter out by the end of the shadow. The trick here is to OBSERVE WELL and if there is a gap right in the middle of the shadow, then make a gap! Paint what you see, not what you think is there.
Here’s the sketch in monochrome:
Have a go at this the next time you are eating at a sunny table outdoors. It is not antisocial – you can sketch so fast, and it doesn’t matter if your shapes are a bit wonky. Start with those nearest you and just keep filling in the things behind them, not forgetting the bits you can see through the glasses and so on in the foreground. Make a very light outline of the shadows in the thinnest nib you have (delicacy is key). Then whip out your brush and your indigo (or your blue or blue-grey of choice) and, with your good quality brush with a point, fill in the shadows. Not too much water, but definitely not too little.
3. Ceramic jars indoors: diffuse light
Things get a tiny bit complicated when you’re drawing indoors, as the shadows can do lots of funny things. For example, there might be two directions of light, from two different sources. Here, there was just one. Each object is round and so there is a darker bit on either side of each pot, separate to the shadow it has cast.
The drawing in outline:
See how plain it looks. I find drawing cylindrical objects quite a challenge, because they are symmetrical (especially if they have a lid!) but I just don’t panic about that and accept that it will be clear that a human made the sketch and not a robot.
I have used the same colour of indigo to suggest the different tones on all the pots, although you’ll see from the full-colour sketch that I used Venetian red mixed with yellow ochre for the terracotta parts, yellow ochre and burnt umber for the wood and ultramarine for the blue bits.
Achieving a soft light on ceramic
There are two qualities of shadow here: those cast by the objects, and those made by the shape of the pots themselves. The latter will need only the merest skim of indigo (or whatever shadow colour you are using) along their vertical length to suggest their shape, but the shadows cast by the objects will be strong or light, according to the intensity of the light shining on them. In this sketch the light is not very strong, so the shadows cast are not very deep.
Once again, it’s easier to see the differing values of indigo, achieved by different layers, with this tonal sketch:
4. Bodies on a beach in Nice, France
This last example of light is the most complicated.
There are many variables. The bodies themselves are made up of complex shapes; they are different colours; they may be wet or dry; they will have clothes on of some sort, which come with their own shadows based on the colour of the garment.
A multi-faceted approach
I approach a body partly like the ceramics indoors (with soft shadow on the curved cylindrical shapes of legs, neck and so on) and partly like the buildings, which cast strong shadows (where a limb is casting a very strong shadow). While you can make all your shadows by overlaying a blue of some sort on top of dry watercolour, you may wish to warm them up a bit (it is skin, after all!), in which case you might want to mix a darker brown for the shadows.
Here’s the line drawing:
Although it is complicated, it is the one that might give you the most answers about how to paint bodies in strong sunlight.
And the tonal sketch:
Keeping skin warm
To my eyes, the tonal sketch of these bodies is more different from the full-colour sketch than the others. Why? It’s because we know on a deep level that bodies are warm and come in shades of cream, pink, golden and brown, and blue is a cold colour.
But you can clearly see the different values of shade achieved, simply by adding more or less layers of colour. Don’t forget the all-important spots of white where there is no colour at all.
Light and Shade In Summary:
Direction of light: be fast. Establish whether there is just one, or more.
When to use black ink: very little, and only for tiny, intense areas, where it really does look jet black.
Strong sunlight = deep indigo shadows, diffuse sunlight or artificial light = less intense shades of indigo (or whatever blue you are using).
How to achieve a glow: a combination of leaving areas white and unpainted, and the clever use of shadows will make your sketch glow.
Practice leaving areas white, even if they are not white in real life.
I have provided some sketched outlines as PDFs (Patreon supporters contact me for the files). Of course the best thing is to practice from life but if you absolutely can’t get to a well-lit subject for whatever reason, then it might help to practice at home first. One of them is missing a jar but why not draw it yourself!