Setting Limits for Creative Results

By limiting her palette to three colors and emphasizing the shadows, Lynn Ferris creates depth and luminosity.

By Lynn Ferris

Shadow Play (watercolor on paper, 21×29) uses three primary colors to cast both light and shadow in an effective way. Only the potted flowers needed the addition of local color.

In the demo that follows, Lynn Ferris details her process of working with a limited palette and emphasizing shadows, often leaving the brightest spots in her composition unpainted. These creative parameters, rather than constraining the artist, focus the process and deliver powerful, brilliant results.

Shadows and Light

Perhaps more than any other elements, light and shadow have the ability to alter the emotional core of a painting quite dramatically. We’ve all viewed an ordinary scene transformed by an artist’s extraordinary use of light and shadow, yet we often persist in treating these crucial elements as finishing details in our own work.

When shadows are added as an afterthought, they’re less likely to contribute to a painting’s composition in a positive way and may even have a negative impact. When this happens, the temptation is to lighten them, resulting in ghostlike shadows and a less confident image. By painting the shadows first — either as habit or as an occasional exercise — you’ll find that your compositions improve and that the shadow areas take on new richness.

These days, I begin nearly all of my watercolors by painting the shadows first. This hasn’t always been my approach, but once I settled on it, I couldn’t deny its positive impact on my painting.  

I painted Joe (watercolor on paper, 30×22) using the shadows-first technique. The strong use of light and shadow creates mood, character and personality without a lot of detail.
The strong path of light in Gathering (watercolor on paper, 21×29) leads the viewer’s eye through the painting and brings emotion to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Disciplined Color

In the demonstration below, I take a simple scene and paint just its shadows using three colors. The result looks complete as is, but can be filled in with local color and details later for a more realistic appearance.

When working with intense shadows, the key to maintaining a sense of luminosity is keeping my color palette simple by using just the three primaries. My go-to colors for painting shadows are phthalo blue, alizarin crimson and cadmium yellow (light or pale). While this palette is limited, it’s anything but limiting — these colors produce vibrant, varied and exciting shadows.

Demo: Painting Just the Shadows

Artist’s Toolkit

  • Surface: I use Arches 140-lb cold press paper when working with multiple layers. The paint from the layers below stays put when new layers are added on top.
  • Paints: Phthalo blue. Some brands have a “green shade” and a “red shade.” I use the green shade as my go-to blue. It layers beautifully because it’s transparent and staining.
  • Paints: Alizarin crimson. This is a cool red that balances well with phthalo blue, both in hue and intensity. The potency of phthalo blue could overwhelm a weaker red.
  • Paints: Cadmium yellow (light or pale). Although I use only small amounts of this color in shadow areas, I like that it’s a true yellow without any green overtones or chalkiness.

In this demonstration, I break down an architectural scene into just two shapes — one I’ll paint as shadow and the other will be the sunlit area that won’t receive any paint.

Almost any scene can be painted with this approach. You may find a first attempt goes most smoothly with forms that have obvious divisions of plane, such as buildings. I chose the architectural closeup in this demo because the strong cast shadows clearly define the form, and the triangular elements add compositional interest. I also like that the depth provided by the overhang of the porch invites the use of rich, mingled darks.

Step 1: Mapping the Shadow

Morning Sun reference photo

I begin by placing a piece of tracing paper over the photo and, with a pencil, shading in the shadow areas. During this step, I’m careful not to confuse light and shadow with light and dark. If an object has a local color of black, but it’s in sunlight, it will be part of the sunlit shape.

Before moving on to the drawing phase, I review the completed map to ensure the design has a strong composition and makes sense visually. Sometimes artistic license is necessary. For example, if a sunlit roof disappears into a clear, bright sky, I’ll select one or the other to become part of the shadow shape, or I might add a few trees in shadow behind the house. Tip: To determine whether a composition is strong, hold your shadow map upside down and look at it in a mirror. This lets you objectively assess the design independent of the subject matter.

Step 2: Creating the Drawing

With the map as reference, I draw the image and then lightly add an outline of the shadows, imagining them not as separate objects, but as a single continuous form or forms. This drawing stage is also when I protect the sunlit areas, blocking small areas off with masking fluid and marking larger areas with a light “X” pencil mark. This reminds me to keep my paintbrush away. Finally, I select an area where I’ll place bounced light within the shadows and mark it with a faint “G,” for “glow” — in this case, the eave.

Step 3: Painting the First Layer

Working wet-into-wet, I begin to paint the shadows at the bounced light. First, I drop in a gold made from cadmium yellow mixed with a touch of alizarin crimson and allow it to expand outward. I like to maintain spontaneity while mixing colors, although I use the yellow sparingly to avoid muddiness. I’m going for a fairly colorful look here; additional layers will make the colors progressively more neutral.

Step 3 Detail: Creating the Bounced Light

When light bounces off a reflective or colored surface and then hits a shadowed form, it often will cast a bit of glow into the shadow. If that color is a warm hue — for example, light bouncing onto the cheek of someone in a red shirt — it can provide a spot of warmth and interest in an otherwise cool-hued area.

I like to find one or two places in every painting to introduce this bit of warm light, using it to subtly draw the viewer’s eye. I want this area of bounced light to appear as a soft glow, not a spotlight. To achieve this effect, I wet the area and then drop in a pale gold comprised of cadmium yellow mixed with a touch of alizarin crimson. While the surface is still wet, I paint around the gold with a red-violet I mix using alizarin crimson and just a bit of phthalo blue. By surrounding the gold with this warm violet, I create a transition area to prevent the spotlight effect, and to protect against the gold becoming murky.

Step 4: Building the Second Layer

I isolate the areas within the shadow shape that will be the lightest and add a second layer of paint to all shadow areas except those sections. I generally allow the colors to layer in a random way, but if I find a color that needs to be toned down, I’ll layer a complementary color over it. Similarly, if I see a color that I particularly like, I’ll layer the same color over it to accentuate it.

Step 5: Adding Depth and Dimension

I repeat the process of adding layers, each one getting a little darker and leaving more out to continue to define the forms. It usually takes four or five layers of paint to achieve a full feeling of depth, structure, value contrast and design.

Final Painting

Morning Sun (watercolor on paper, 20×14)

I add a few final touches — a porch lamp and stronger darks in some of the windows — to create contrast, visual interest and just a hint of detail in Morning Sun.

Meet the Artist

Lynn Ferris has long been focused on strong light and shadow in her paintings. A signature member of AWS and the National Watercolor Society (NWS), her work has been featured in multiple editions of Splash: Best of Watercolor (North Light Books). She teaches painting workshops throughout the United States. Visit to learn more.

A version of this article appeared in Watercolor Artist magazine.

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