Shadows And Shading The Human Figure

Note: This is a blog post about creating figurative art, i.e. the human figure. As often happens with this topic, there are paintings and photographs representing the artistic nude. If this is in any way offensive to you, proceed no further.

I was having a typical discussion with my buddy on Deviant Art, about shadows and shading in figurative art (‘figurative art’ refers to art depicting the human figure), and as is often the case, this discussion inspired me to do a post. Of course this discussion about shading could apply to all art, depicting anything.

Shape And Color

Color and shadow are very basic ways in which our eyes determine form.  The way our eyes detect color is by the light absorbed and reflected from a surface. If a surface absorbs all light from the color spectrum except red, and reflects only that red spectrum, we see the object as red. Likewise if it absorbs all colors but blue, we see it as blue. If an object reflects all the colors of the spectrum, and absorbs none, as see it as white. If a surface absorbs all the colors of the spectrum, and reflects none, we see it as black. The color reflected by a surface, such as pink or brown skin, or a green skirt, is called the ‘local color’ of that surface.


Black and white photos allow us to clearly see light, shadow and form without the factor of local color. This can give us a much clearer sense of form and lighting. “Two Girls” and “Paige,” both photos by me.


One aspect of art is to use colors (the pigments found in paints, pastels, pens, etc…) to imitate surfaces the eye would see. When we paint a human figure (or any other object) we are not creating a human figure: we are representing a human figure by imitating the shapes and colors the eye would see when looking at an actual human. The colors of the paint we use represents the light spectrum detected by the human eye. And unlike photography, which can only reflect reality, with painting we can alter the colors and shapes as much as we like to create a suggestion of the human form, an impression of the human form, or an abstraction of the basic shapes of the human form.


Above: typical of Pop Surrealism, artist Caia Koopman uses the features of the human form in a surreal way to represent a human who is not realistic: yet because her image has all of the features of a human; eyes, nose, hair, mouth, neck, etc; we perceive this as a human figure. And because her lines are graceful and her features are well proportioned, ideals through which we define beauty, she appears beautiful to the viewer. Below: legendary artist Pablo Picasso abstracts the basic form of the human figure to create an image that we understand as human, though it is simply a collection of shapes and forms.



Shadow is an area where light does not fall (or only a faint light falls). Therefore we do not fully see a reflected light spectrum there. We might see a darker version of the surface color, or we may see no light at all, which the human brain registers as black. We perceive darkness, when in fact, there is color there: We just can’t see it.

Shadows, areas of limited or no color, allow our brains to perceive an object’s form. We can tell the shape of an object by the areas of light and shadow reflected or absorbed by that object. One of the first exercises that art teachers give is shading basic objects, like a sphere, cube, cone, etc. in black and white (represented by graphite):

Shading allows our eye to see a one-dimensional object drawn on paper as if it were a three dimensional object. It fools our eye by giving the brain what it would see if it were looking at a three-dimensional object. A flat drawing seems to our eye to have depth, form and solidity.

Different artists have dealt with shading and shadow in depicting the human figure in all kinds of ways. For the many centuries of art before about 1833, painters were tasked to depict reality. Paintings of humans by Titian and Botticelli had to look pretty much exactly like humans, even if the scene depicted was mythic or allegorical. Classical painters would often shade a figure by using darker shades of the local color.


In Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ Grand Odalisque, painted in 1814, the artist uses subtle darkening of skin tones as shading (except in the shadow on the face, where he uses a dark, nearly black shade to represent the absence of light: only a slight sliver of light hints at the shape of the cheek).

But in the year 1833, Daguerre invented the modern still camera. The art world changed: now film could depict reality, and artists were free to experiment with form and color. This led to nineteenth and early twentieth century movements like Impressionism and Expressionism. It also led to very different ideas about shading and shadow.


In ‘Girl With Black Hair’ (1910), Impressionist Egon Schiele abandoned realistic depiction, and used outlines and blotches of color to represent shadow and form. Although Schiele had a tragically short life, his work, and that of his contemporary, Gustav Klimt, influence artists into the present time. 

Experiments In Shading And Form

At this point I’ll talk a bit about my own relationship with the human form, and with color, shading and shadow. Mind you, I do not profess to be an expert: I’m an OK painter. I experiment. Sometimes it works out. Other times not so much. I try to learn something from every painting I make. Sometimes I learn that I’m not very good at something.

At one point in my life as a painter, I was influenced by the techniques of classical artists like Ingres. In those years, I would use darker shades of the local skin colors to represent shadow.

Take a look at my painting of the Goddess Hestia, based on a photo I had taken of a model. In the color photo, the shadows on the model’s cheeks and shoulder appear as areas of darker red against her reddish-pink complexion. the shadows on her torso appear as grey areas:


In my painting of Hestia (to whom pigs were the standard offering, hence the ‘ring of pigs’) I in fact used darker reds to depict shadow. I also made her skirt green rather than yellow, and used darker greens to depict shading there. I used some grey on the torso, but mixed this with darker reds.


birth of Aphrodite

A transitional piece for me, The Birth Of Aphrodite, in which I used a combination of darker skin tones and some purples to represent shading.

As I went on, I became more influenced by artists like Schiele, Manet, Degas, Ashley Wood, Glenn Barr, Mark Rydan, Caia Koopman and a bunch of other Impressionists and Pop Surrealists. I changed my technique drastically when it came to shadow and shading.

I began using colors opposite the local color on the color wheel. If skin is pink and red, I would use purple and blue to shade the figure.


In Cellist, I used reds, purples and greens to represent shaded areas.

I was once friends with an artist named Nybor, who began with a black ground and worked into lighter colors, rather than doing so the other way around as most artists do. He explained to me that he did this because he was color-blind, and saw hues rather than colors (though his work was very color-rich, strangely enough). It was easier for him to see light hues against a dark background (while most artists see dark colors more easily against a light background). It’s important to remember, by the way, that colors are only ‘light’ or ‘dark’ when placed against other colors. Hansa Yellow Light could be the darkest color in an otherwise white piece.

dancer sketch

In my painting of a dancer, yellows and ochres, which are ‘light’ colors, appear dark against white highlights.

Anyway, I recently I decided to try Nybor’s technique.

I had a piece that I wasn’t very happy with, so I painted it over with several coats of Mars Black. I had a photo by Aimee Fitzgerald (, who places her pics on Deviant Art as stock (meaning artists can use them as a basis for their work). I then began painting only the lightest areas of skin against the black background. In other words, rather than painting light skin and then adding shadow, I began with shadow (blackness) and added light areas of skin.


Above: the photo Torso by Aimeestock. I loved the way the photo was a dramatic play of light and shadow. Below: my painting based on the photo. I eliminated a good deal of local color, and used primarily black and white paints, with hints of color for drama. 

Aimee study

I used the same dark-to-light technique for a depiction of the Grimms’ tale Fitcher’s Bird. Again, I began with a black canvas and developed the painting by working into light colors, though I did use more cream flesh tones and some blue for dynamism:

Fitcher's Bird

My Life With Windsor

A few months ago my one-and-only-true-love Lauren opened my eyes to two acrylic colors: Windsor Violet and Windsor Blue (of course at the time I asked “why are you buying those??!!” because I can be pretty stupid at times). These have become my default shading colors. I love the way they contrast with the skin tones I use. I also love their opacity on canvas.


In my depictions of the Celtic Goddesses Epona, above, and Henwen, below, I went a little nuts with the use of Windsor Violet and Windsor Blue as shading colors. In Henwen, I feel that the Windsor Violet creates a dramatic contrast to the very light skin tones.


Bloudewedd 4

In a depiction of the Welsh flower Goddess Blodeuwedd, in watercolors, I used a combination of deep reds and Prussian Blue for shading. I also used a very blue-hued purple in the atmospherics to harmonize with the figure.

If you’ve read some of my “step-by-step” posts here, you know that in my current paintings I like to create the shading first, using colors like Windsor Violet. That helps me define shape and form before applying the local color. At some point, I could stop and call the piece done with just the shading on a white canvas, such as in this detail of Henwen in progress:

henwen 4

However, at other times I’ve applied the local color first, and then blended in darker colors while the paint is still wet, in order to obtain shaded areas. If you’re doing this in acrylics, you might want to mix an extender or slow-dry medium into your local color. This will keep the paint wet on your ground while you mix in darker shades. In oils you don’t have to worry, because oils take forever to dry. In watercolor, you can add watery layers of paint, called washes, over one another. This will give you darker colors and more depth (though if you add too many washes your painting will appear ‘muddy’).

Every artist will treat shading in her or his own way. I was reading an art magazine recently (it was either Juxtapose or Hi-Fructose), and in it, an artist said ‘creating art is about encountering problems, and then finding solutions.’ (I may be paraphrasing there, but that was the jist of the quote). I completely agree. To paint is to create problems for yourself. Finding the solutions to those problems will cost you reams of paper, gallons of paint and piles of canvas, but it will also evolve your personal artistic style. And truth be told, a consistent vision and a unique artistic style may be just as good as, or better than, technical perfection. Just look at the work of Picasso, Margaret Keane, or Egon Schiele for proof of that.

I’ll leave you with another painting based on photos of Aimeestock. In this one I again used Prussian Blue, Windsor Violet and Crimson to represent deep shadows.

aimee 2

Thanks for looking, and feel free to ‘like’ or comment.









One comment

  1. Bonsai Tree Gardener · April 20, 2016

    Excellent web site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks for your sweat!|


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s