How to Paint Lights & Shadows With Oil

Written by jackie michael
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How to Paint Lights & Shadows With Oil
Learn to create light and shadows in an oil painting. (Mountains image by zalisa from

The joy of creating a unique work of art through oil on canvas can be a relaxing and rewarding pastime. Taking an afternoon in the sunshine to paint a quiet landscape or painting a portrait of a loved one can give the artist a sense of achievement. There are many known techniques for using oil paints, but painting light and shade is something with which many artists struggle. There are key criteria for getting light and shade correct when using oil paints.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Landscape brush
  • 1-inch foliage brush
  • Fan brush
  • 1-inch brush
  • Liquid white
  • Oil paints
  • Canvas

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  1. 1

    Work from back to front on your canvas to create depth in your picture. Begin preparing the canvas by painting the background. Working from the furthest point away to the nearest point as you build the layers in your painting will give a sense of depth and perspective. Paint the liquid white over the entire canvas using the 1-inch regular brush. This is a thick paint brush such as you would use for home decorating. Apply a thin layer of the liquid white, using long horizontal and vertical strokes. This is called the "wet-on-wet" technique, in which you apply wet oil paint to an already dampened surface.

  2. 2

    Consider from what direction the light in your painting will be coming from. It is not necessary to paint the sun, but you can give a feeling of light and sunshine from a particular point in your picture. The side from which the light is coming will determine how and where you create the shaded areas.

  3. 3

    Use phthalo blue and white for the sky. Create your landscape by building on the canvas. Create mountains using firm straight strokes from the peak downward and add shade to the side of the mountain using titanium white. Build another layer to your painting by adding some distant trees. The fan brush should be loaded with very dark green and just laid on the canvas gently to create the pine tree effect.

  4. 4

    Create some water using blues and whites and brush the canvas at a horizontal angle. A lake or other body of water will still need to look as though it has some movement, because not all water is still. Create shadows to your trees by emulating the opposite shape into the water, pressing the brush lightly to the watery blue. Use a dry 1-inch brush and sweep it gently across the canvas for a slight blurring shadow effect.

  5. 5

    Create shade to your near objects by lightening the sunny side with titanium white. The paint should look splintered to create the effect that some smaller areas will still be shaded even though the light is coming from that direction.

  1. 1

    Paint still life and portraits using the same principles of light. Faces are not flat, and to create a rounded effect, place lighter shades of skin tones on the lighted side of the face. All natural light should emit from the same point or angle.

  2. 2

    Add light and shade to rounded objects, such as fruit or vases, by adding a thin line of light colour to the edge of the rounded surface. Smudge the line coming toward the darkened area to create roundness within your still life.

  3. 3

    Darken shaded areas slightly using the same colour with which the object is painted, but add a small amount of charcoal grey or black to darken the more hidden areas of the object.

  4. 4

    Smudge the dark into the light a little so that it blends, giving a three-dimensional effect of natural shape to the object. Create shadow around the bottom of objects by darkening the surrounding surface.

  5. 5

    Highlight any brightly lit areas using light colours, but tap the paint onto the canvas to emulate the true light. Think about how shiny objects such as glass vases will also reflect objects around them and the light they are emitting. Observe your still life or portrait model carefully at regular intervals during your painting process.

Tips and warnings

  • Shade is not always created using darker colours. It can also be created as an illusion by lightening the opposite side of the object.
  • Always plan from which side the light will come before you begin your painting.

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