How to Paint Graduated Shades

Written by vivienne lydamore
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How to Paint Graduated Shades
Graduated shades provide depth and dimension to a painting. (mountain shades image by Jakub Cejpek from

Variations in colour, light and shadow can give a painting drama and dimension. Dark values of colours, called shades, can balance the light values, called tints. According to watercolour artist Gordon MacKenzie, dark values connote mystery, dignity, strength and weight. MacKenzie cautions that a painting with too many dark values may need balance from lighter values and tints. To create graduated shades and tints called gradations or gradients, add small amounts of black or white in sequence. With practice, the mastery of subtle gradations will reward you with richer dimensions and livelier paintings.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Paper or canvas
  • Red tempera paint
  • Black tempera paint
  • Brushes
  • White palette or white plastic plate
  • Water

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  1. 1

    Pour a puddle of red paint and a puddle of black paint onto the palette or plate. Keep the pigments separate from each other.

  2. 2

    Thin the paints with just enough water to make them spread easily with the brushes. While diluting the paints, use separate brushes for each colour.

  3. 3

    Apply a stripe of pure red to the paper. Using the red brush, go to the palette and mix a small amount of black with red. Brush the new shade across the paper immediately below and touching the first stripe.

  4. 4

    Continue to add small amounts of black to the red on the palette to create darker and darker shades of red. Apply each new shade below -- and touching -- the stripe that came before. The final stripe should contain only black.

  5. 5

    Look at the range of shades in the gradations from red to black and save your sample for future reference. According to watercolour artist Jan Kunz, the human eye can see 10 or 11 gradations of light and dark.

  6. 6

    Adapt the process to watercolour, oil or acrylic and practice with pigments you actually use when painting. For other variations when creating shades, Gordon MacKenzie recommends using colours like indigo, sepia or Payne's grey (a dark bluish grey) -- depending on the colour you wish to darken.

  7. 7

    Experiment with various colours and their complements to create gradations. Complementary colours, when mixed together, create black. By mixing complements a little at a time, you should achieve interesting and lively shadow effects.

Tips and warnings

  • If you have other pigments and colours on hand, use them to experiment with values.
  • On sunny days, the shadow side of an object looks 40 per cent darker than the sunny side.

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