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Putting a Little More Zip in Your Painting

Don’t we ALL want a bit more zip in our paintings?


Here is something you can use to add the enhancement that you’re looking for. Put more COLOUR in your local colours! When you add more colour to your base colour, it is like having a dish that is already yummy, and then you spice it up a little. You add a dash of this and a titch of that, but BE CAREFUL, because just like over-spicing a meal, you can overdo the colour-zippity very easily.


Start with the Shadows:


To put zip into your shadows you can do four things.


1. Really pay attention to the temperature of the light source.


Warm light produces cooler shadows, and cool light produces warmer shadows.

Note: The use of warm and cool is always relative. If you light an object with a warm light source (say a red light) it will produce a cooler shadow. This shadow may still be red, but it will be cooler (relatively) to the light source.


A good example of this is in a mountain snow scene. The mountain shadows are a blue (cool) colour. The snow shadow is also blue (cool). The snow in light is not now light blue... it is a light yellow (warm). Having a warm light, the cool shadow makes the snow pop!



Painting of a tree in front of a mountain.


2. Analyze local colour and value.


Get the base value and the overall colour of the object. If it’s a green tree in light then the shadow will also be green, BUT a darker version of the green on the light side. If it’s a cool green in the light, then the shadow will be a warmer green. If it is a warm green in the light, then the shadow will be a cool green.


Be sure to get the correct colour and, more importantly, the correct value. Most shadows are not as dark as they appear, especially in photos. Rule of Thumb... Most shadows on a primary object will be near value 4-5 on your handy value finder.


To get even more zip, do this:


3. Add the complementary colour, with some analogous and/or some reflected lights.


Once you have the correct local colour and value you can add zip to it. ‘Complements’ are the opposite colour to your local colour. This is MUCH spicier. If your tree has a cool green shadow, try adding a bit of cool red (like perhaps a dull pink).


Add some analogous colours. Again if your shadow is cool green, try adding some bluer green or even turquoise to it. Remember, Kiddos... Keep these in the same value as what is already there, or your shadow will lose cohesion. Adding in analogous colours will give you a softer feel to the work.


4. Add some reflected light.


Reflected lights are usually a bit lighter than the base shadow value but never more than ONE value step more. Reflected lights can be almost any colour you want. They come from light bouncing off adjacent objects that surround the shadow. Buildings, ground planes, sky colour, nearby trees etc., make for great sources of reflected colour.


Remember that your additions of analogous, compliment, or reflected lights should not occupy more than 30% of the main shadow colour.


5. Try a Dark Accent


Once you have established your local colour and value and added in your zippy colour, you can ground all of these with a dark accent. A dark accent will be a full value darker than the main shadow and should not be more than about 5% overall. Without this added little gem, your shadows can seem too dark, and your reflected lights will seem dull, drab and will not have that glow you’re looking for.


Most shadows should be painted with translucent colour. If you get the right temperature and value this won’t matter much, but if you get these two wrong, transparency can save you!


  • “Darks carry the drawing while lights carry the colour”.


About Light…

For lights, all of the above holds true. You can add loads of fun colours within the base light value.


Here are a few more tips:

Impressionistic painting of a barn in the mountains.

Paint your darks thin and your lights using thicker paint (referred to as impasto). This enhances the quality of light in your paintings. In general, you will put the darker background using thin paint layers first, and then, in later stages of painting, add the lighter foreground areas with thicker paint.


By painting the darks with thin paint you get three benefits:

  • You prevent light from bouncing off ridges of paint and destroying the dark effect when the painting is viewed.


  • It prevents the viewer’s attention from getting attracted to passages of the painting that you may want to keep in the background.

  • You can layer transparent strokes of different hues on top of each other and achieve a natural-looking warm cool contrast. The transparency effect gives the impression of a luminous, transparent shadow.

By painting the lights with thicker paint you do these things:

  • Enhance the light effect by letting light bounce off the ridges of the thicker brushstrokes when the painting is viewed.

  • You may attract the viewer to more interesting light sections of your painting.


  • When adding complements... The further your colour bends toward a direct complement, the more visual weight your lights will carry. So, if you want a more subtle feel, try using colours that move only slightly from one to the other side of the colour wheel.


From one to the other side of the colour wheel.

Landscape painting of a mountain with a bit of snow on it and trees to the left.

Landscape painting of a black and white mountain.

Landscape painting of a mountain with a bit of snow at the bottom.

The lights may seem purple, but they are a purple to the red side, making them warmer than the shadows. Warm light, cool shadows.


Watercolour painting of a busy daytime street scene.

Warm light, cool shadow. The shadow colour here is mostly complimentary (purple) with a little discord colour of green thrown in.


Painting of bushes on a pond.

Lori Putnam-ish Big Green Leaves

Warm lights, cool shadows. Note the two different greens used in the shadows.


Painting of a people folding a sheet at a large dinner table.

Painting of a people folding a sheet at a large dinner table in black and white.

The blues and greens in the shadows are all of the same value.


Painting of a small row boat washed up on land with building in the background.

Zoomed in painting of a building in the daytime.

Colour is bouncing around everywhere.


Impressionistic landscape painting of a backyard and some trees  near a house.

Cool light, warm dark. Notice the warmer yellow shadow under the eves with a purple complement in the same value. The same thing is happening on the light side of the building. Notice the yellow and purple complements in the lights.


Painting of a snowy landscape of a hill.

Warm light, cool shadows. Though the shadows are very light here due to the refractive light from it being snow there are still some fun colours going on to add zip.


Figure painting of a woman posing on some colourful drape.

Even though the light in this painting is yellow and seems warm, it is a much cooler temperature than the warm darks making this cool light and warm shadows.


Painting of an ocean near the shore.

Complements in the sand. Yellow and purple.


Painting of a man covering a woman with a sheet to protect her from the sun.

Notice the wonderful reflected light bouncing off her dress into the sheet next to her.


Landscape painting of a field and hills

Warm and cool greens both in the shadows and in the lights.


Impressionistic painting of a bright red car outside of a building.

Cool light, warm shadows.


Painting of a red truck parked in a drive way.

Cool light, warm shadows on the truck - however, for a change, there is warm light on the ground and a cool shadow under the truck. Also, notice the purples, blues and greens in the shadows on the house and the tree behind the truck.


Painting of a woman on a blanket laying down.

Look at all the colours bouncing around in this Jane Romonishko painting. Also, look at the dark accent line at the base of the back, grounding the figure and lifting the reflected light to a radiant level.


The key takeaway is to keep those zippy colours close in value, or you will get a jumbled-up mess.

Keep those brushes swinging.

Your friend in art, Doug.

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Love this little collection of tips👌 You have such a great way of communicating what can be rather complex and confusing material. Thank you.

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