If you’ve taken any formal art classes, you’ve experienced the lesson in painting shadows where they have you paint a solid white sphere. This exercise is helpful, and I recommend doing it if you haven’t yet, but you can only handle so many academic exercises with no real-world use before you start to lose your love of painting.
I designed this tutorial to help you practice painting shadows by concentrating on something white because white subjects help you focus on the colour of the light as a beginner. Since this is a landscape, you will come away with a piece that you’re happy to post on social media instead of something that only impresses inside the classroom.
Let us begin!
Step 1: Sketch
Behind every good painting is a good sketch. I cannot stress enough how vital a quality sketch is because it is the foundation of your painting.
Over time you’ll figure out what you like and dislike in a sketch and do it in a way that suits your style, but my favourite way to do a sketch is to have the lines vary in weight somewhat and broken in places. Doing this creates a naturalistic and soft appearance, emphasising specific areas of interest.
Step 2: The Colours
Since this is a beginner’s shading practice piece, the only colours we will worry about are brown and blue. These colours mix into a lovely soft grey. If you use more brown, you make a warm grey, and if you use more blue, you make a delicious midnight colour.
Different browns and different blues mix in different ways. You can use Ultramarine Blue and Dark Brown from Etchr Lab's Watercolour 24 Half Pan Set
if you want to follow me precisely.
Step 3: Hint of Warmth
We will begin by laying down the warm undertones of the foreground in this picture. We’re going to make this landscape look real by using the principle of atmospheric perspective: Objects in the foreground will be warmer and more saturated, while objects in the background will be less saturated and bluer.
The brown I’m using here for the road has some blue, but not a lot. I am working wet-on-dry because the gravel and snow are mixed on the roadsides, and the dry brush takes advantage of the paper’s texture in creating this effect.
Step 4: Shading the Foreground
The main rule to follow when mixing shadows is that the shaded portion of the picture will be a cooler colour than the main section. I used a slightly bluer brown to shade the trees, and already they are dimensional! I used some bluer mixture for the road to suggest where the cars drive the most, so the asphalt is showing through.
Don’t overdo anything here, though. Remember that we have as much time as we need, so it’s more important to have clean layers than quick layers.
Step 5: Adding Depth to the Background
Take the furthest back hill and apply a more blue mixture to it. The most saturated part will be along the very top edge. To create a nice gradient, paint sharply along the edge of the hill, then take a clean brush and blend sideways over the rough edge of the initial brushstroke. The angle in the photo above gives you an idea of what angle you should blend.
You can make the mixture even bluer for another time around once the first layer dries if you want! You can softly go over the rest of the hill edges with less pigment than you gave the rest of the hill, and maybe you’ll even decide to use a warmer tone for the lower and nearer parts of the hill.
Step 6: Return to the Foreground
Here’s where we can get a bit bolder with that blue-grey. With a dry brush, add more asphalt to the road, making it bluer and bluer as it goes further back into the atmosphere. Then, add some bushes to the foreground. Woody plants in the winter are generally more grey than brown. There is no need to define details because we’re not very near the bushes.
Step 7: A Nifty Gradient
This part is both cool and a bit tricky! Use the blue-grey mixture from the previous step to add the shapes of trees to the far left hill, then use a clean brush to blend it upward into the sky! It shows the altitude of the setting by having a cloud meet the hilltop.
Step 8: Clouds!
Use the warmer grey for contrast with the hilltops, and ever so lightly dust the sky with that colour for some fluffy clouds. Don’t overdo this.
There you go! You practised mixing shadows on a white object, but it wasn’t a school-assignment type project! Try painting other snowy scenes because those are always the best for practising shaading without distracting colour.
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