During our member critique webinar last month, painting the correct values of rocks in shadow seemed to be a consistent struggle. I thought it might be helpful to write a short tutorial explaining the basic principles for painting shadows.

If you have trouble getting the values right when it comes to rocks, don’t feel bad – it’s tough for all of us. When we look at rocks on a sunny day there are all kinds of things to figure out (like colorful minerals that look bright and shiny even in shadow).

Here are some ‘tips and tricks’ that I’ve come across over the years that can help simplify the process for you.

Squint to Decode the Values of Shapes

Here is the reference image all of our members used for our Paint Together webinar we did last month.

Rocky Hillside near Spanish Forks, Utah – photo by Bill Inman

Rocky Hillside near Spanish Forks, Utah – photo by Bill Inman

I chose this image for the Paint Together because I knew those bright bluish lavender colors throughout the large rock would be tricky.

Stop reading right now and use the above image to practice squinting. We can squint at a photo just like we do when we paint outdoors.

Squint until the areas of the photo are reduced to simple shapes of dark and light. Notice how much brighter the sunlit areas at the top of the rocky hillside are compared to the seemingly bright blue rocks in the shadows.

Squinting is one of our best friends as artists. I don’t know of a better way to quickly discover the relative dark and light of shapes.

Here is the painting I did for the Paint Together.

Echoes of the Past 11x14 – oil painting by Bill Inman

Echoes of the Past 11×14 – oil painting by Bill Inman

Richard Schmid, in his book Alla Prima, says to squint at our subject but not at our painting. I tend to disregard that advice. I squint at my paintings constantly to make sure my values are working.

You’ll just have to try both out and see what works best for you.

Get the Values Right and Almost Any Color Will Work

The fun thing about rocks is how colorful they can be. The wonderful thing about shadows is that if we get the values correct, we can use about any color and it will work.

Look at this detail from my painting – I had all kinds of fun painting those colorful striations in the rocks.

Detail of painted rock closeup

If you squint at the image you will see that even the bright blue areas are much darker in value than the sunlit highlights. See how many different colors I worked within that one small area of rocks in shadow.

Values in Shadow Will Never be as Bright as Values in Light

The main thing I focus on is making sure that all the values I have in the shadows are darker than all the values I use in the light areas.

What does that mean?

Within an area of shadow, we might have several degrees of dark. So, using a value scale of 1-9, we might have shadows that are a 7, 8 or 9 in value. In the light areas, we might have values that are 1,2 or 3.

Light Scale Value

Value Scale

The tricky part starts with the transitional middle values of 4,5 and 6. Those are generally my favorite values because they have the strongest color – like cad red light straight from the tube. Ultramarine straight from the tube is so dark it’s tough to tell it’s blue.

We can use all 9 values in our paintings, but the values we use in the shadows should never be from one of the values we use for the shapes in the light. Reverse that for the light areas – their values will never be as dark as values in the shadows.

So, let’s say our painting uses all 9 values. We might use values 1-4 for the shapes in the light and values 6-9 for values in the shadows. Value 5 will be reserved for a halftone or transitional value where the light and shadow shapes touch each other.

In that case, value 7 should never show up in the overall shape of something in the light. Yes, some rocks might look like a value of 4, but it’s an optical illusion.

Exceptions to the Shadow Rule?

Do I always follow this ‘rule’?

Of course not! Rules don’t exist in the world of painting because everything is really just an optical illusion.

A value scale version of Echoes of the Past painting by Bill Inman

Often 4,5 and 6 are toss-up values for me. I might use those values in both the light and shadow areas because I love strong, saturated color.

The important thing is to make sure we don’t confuse the viewer. The light areas should look like light and the shadow areas should look like shadow.

An example is the two circles in the black and white image above. I didn’t like the bright green bushes in the reference image, so I changed the color and value in some of the bushes in my painting.

The dark green bush in the light on the left looks very similar in value to the bush in the shadow of the rock. Both values are between a 6 and a 7 on the value scale.

That’s where relativity comes in to play.

The relative brightness of the values around the bush in the light helps the viewer know that the bush is a dark bush in the light. The same holds true in helping the viewer know the other bush is a lighter bush in the shadows. At least I hope so…


Figuring out the values of shapes can get confusing for the most seasoned painter. Don’t get discouraged.

Squint often. Eventually, it will become second nature.

Hopefully, the principles and ideas I shared today will help simplify the complexity of shadows a bit for you. Also, remember that these are principles designed to make it easier – they are not rules.

Have fun with it. Practice painting lots of colors in a rock’s shadow so you can play at keeping each of those colors in the correct value range.

Remember to smile as you experiment and struggle through the experience – painting is a joyful privilege.


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