Learn how to balance the delicate play of light and shadow to bring drama to your watercolor landscapes.
Whether painting a familiar landscape near home or tackling an exotic scene farther afield, it’s the play of light and shadow that brings the drama to a composition. In this excerpt from her book, Sunlight & Shadows in Watercolour (Batsford, 2015), artist Lucy Willis shares how to balance the delicate play of light and shadow to bring drama to your watercolor landscapes. Enjoy her insights and art demo below, and you’ll be painting light and shadow like a pro.
Painting Light and Shadow
by Lucy Willis
Seeing Shadow Variety
For painters, shadows are miraculous things, because a shadow in a painting immediately suggests light. Shadows create light by way of contrast, and the nature of a shadow can be found by close study of color and tone. There are as many permutations of shadows as there are conditions of light: cast shadows, attached shadows in which a surface curves away from the light, soft-edged and hard-edged shadows, double shadows (from multiple light sources), and so on.
Demo: Summer Veranda, England
In a complex composition like this one, which is full of little patches of light, it’s important not to burn your bridges by putting large areas of wash on the paper at the beginning and thus losing the chance to retain a highlight where you need it.
I began by building up a series of marks over the surface so that I had an idea of the composition before committing myself to larger shapes. I used the point of my large brush, dipped into a variety of greens, grays and pinks, to lightly and rapidly plot the filigree of leaf shapes that would gradually build up as the painting progressed.
Next, I mixed a neutral gray color so that I could pin down the shadows on the ground, then moved across the picture, building up detail in a loose but controlled way, taking care not to paint over the brightest areas. Before applying the intensely dark trees, I made marks to position the figure, and then painted carefully around her head, giving a crisp edge to the sunlit form.
Never losing sight of the parts of the painting I wanted to keep white, I gradually filled the spaces. On the foliage,
I used mostly dabs and small broken brushstrokes so that a sparkle of light would remain on many of the leaves.
I toned down the white wooden structure on the far right so that it appeared to be in shadow, and also all the foreground plants beneath it to enhance the effect of the sunlight on the paving stones in Summer Veranda, England. A little extra detail on the dark trees also increased the contrast with the translucent green creepers in front.
More Tips for Painting Light and Shadow
Stop and squint.
When you have a subject with areas of strong sun alternating with shadow, it helps to squint to simplify the tones. The whole image becomes a bit of a blur but the basic shapes of light and dark are easier to see, making the shadow pattern clearer.
Have a strategy.
Once you start applying paint, it’s important to have a clear strategy in mind before you apply shadows so that you don’t run into difficulties. For example, if you have a large area of shade, try to apply it in a single wash, even if it’s a fairly complicated shape.
Pre-mix the shadow color.
Mix plenty of color at the outset to avoid running out halfway through; if you have to pause to mix more, the edge of your wash could dry, leaving an unwanted line. Should you run out of color, keep pushing at the edge already on the paper while you mix.
Meet the Artist
English artist Lucy Willis studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, in Oxford, England, and then taught drawing and etching at the Aegean School of Fine Art, in Greece. A painter and printmaker, Willis has shown her work in more than 27 solo exhibitions in London to date. Her work has won several awards, including a 1992 BP Portrait Award, and is part of many public collections, including the National Portrait Gallery, in London, and in private collections around the world. Willis has run numerous painting trips abroad as a guest tutor for the U.K. magazine The Artist. Her home base is Somerset, England.
A version of this story appeared in the June 2020 issue of Watercolor Artist magazine.