Watercolor Techniques

How To Use Color For Shadowing And Contrast

This blog post addresses the question “How to Use Color for Shadowing and Contrast” asked by a student in my Watercolor Mini-Course.

Every object placed in daylight or artificial light will cast shadows and have shadows. The shadows vary according to the time of day or the direction of the light, and if the light is diffused by clouds in the sky or nearby objects. Contrasts between the object and its shadows are the differences between the tonal values dark and light, color temperatures warm and cool, and complementary colors.

Color In Shadows

There are three distinct shadows visible when objects are lit by direct light, they are:

  • Core Shadow – the dark band visible where light and shadow meet at the point where light no longer reaches the object;
  • Reflected Light – the light that bounces off the surface of nearby objects and reflects back onto the object; and
  • Cast Shadow – the shadow created by the object itself blocking the light on the surface the object rests on.

The above image illustrates the core shadow, reflected light and shadow, and the cast shadow of the banana. The bright light source creates a strong contrast of light and dark tonal values, in color contrast of warm and cool colors, and in the contrast of two complementary colors – Yellow < > Purple < or > the split-complement Blue-Purple.

Contrasting Colors

Think opposites:

The color Yellow in the banana has a warm temperature, a light tonal value, and is the complementary color opposite the Purple visible in the shadow.

The color Purple in the cast shadow of the Yellow banana has a cool temperature, a dark tonal value, and is the complementary color opposite of Yellow.

How to Create Shadows

Observation and understanding of color is key.

Use this Color Schemes page as a resource to find my blog posts about the 12 colors on the color wheel and their color schemes.

Look closely at the object to be painted, and determine its dominant local color.

Look closely at the object’s cast shadow, and determine what complementary color it is.

  • Yellow < > Purple
  • Yellow-Green < > Red-Purple
  • Green < > Red
  • Blue-Green < > Red-Orange
  • Blue < > Orange
  • Yellow-Orange < > Blue-Purple

For corresponding watercolor paint names for the above see What Watercolors To Buy.

Use transparent watercolors and/or semi-transparent watercolors, never opaque or semi-opaque watercolors. Why? Because shadows are transparent. You can see the color of the surface beneath the shadow. For the best results when painting shadows use the glazing and layering techniques.


To learn my process and improve your painting skills follow me on Instagram @vanissajames and visit my website: Vanissa James Fine Art.

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