Skip to content
Home » Challenge #16 What is the color of the shadow? (II)

Challenge #16 What is the color of the shadow? (II)

How do artists answer this question? What meaning do they convey to shadow? Why do some simply ignore shadows?

For the Greeks, the invention of drawing would have been born of a line delimiting the shadow of a man. This shows the symbolic importance of shadows in art throughout the ages.

So, after addressing the physical aspects of the question in the first part of this challenge, set off on an artistic journey, a source of inspiration for new creations.

Let us once again adopt the GORC method (Get inspired, Observe, Reproduce, Create).

Conclusion of Challenge #16: Shadow has the color and shape that our imagination gives it (CC-BY-SA Vinciane Lacroix)

Get inspired and observe

Since when have clean and cast shadows been represented? For what purpose? By what means? Which artists have played a key role?


If the drawing is born from the shadow, the representation of the shadow is not immediate. In cave art, for example, there is no trace of the cast shadow. Although discreet, the shadow itself is manifested in the blurring of the line, conferring volume and presence to these wild animals.

Large bison. Charcoal drawing with blending stump, flint routing. Cave of the Pont d’Arc (CC-BY-SA Claude Valette).

Playing on value

The most conventional way of depicting shadow is to play on value.

This principle is beautifully illustrated by Rembrandt (1606-1669), master of chiaroscuro, presented in Challenge#2; however, in this self-portrait, who would have dared to plunge a face, the main subject of the painting, into darkness as he did?

Rembrandt, “Young Self-Portrait” (1628-1629)

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) also excelled in this field. Notice the modelling of the face, the texture of the garment, the draping of the carpet on the table, the softness of the lighting with, on the door, a ray of light indicating an invisible window. This composition seems very modern to me whereas the painting was painted in 1656-1657.

Johannes Vermeer, above “Sleeping Woman” (1656-1657); below “The Art of Painting” (1666-1668)

Vermeer’s virtuosity still bursts forth in “The Art of Painting”; everything is a play of light and shadow. The curtain on the left guides the gaze towards the young woman illuminated by a diffuse light source.

As for Emile Friant (1863-1932), he used shadows to depict the feelings of his models. Here, the man’s shadow seems to want to place a kiss on the cheek of this woman whose body, accentuated by a receding shadow, denotes hesitation, if not rejection. The whole painting is based on the modulation of values. Only the faces and hands bring a touch of color, as shown in the juxtaposed black and white version.

Émile Friant, “Cast Shadows” (1891); little difference between the original version and a black and white reproduction.


With an economy of means, the ink of china added on a drawing allows to create depth immediately. Author of comics and cartoon reports, Jean-Claire Lacroix synthesizes the shadow with a masterful brushstroke in the sketch below.

Jean-Claire Lacroix, sketch – courtesy of the artist.


In drawing, shading is often achieved by hatching. In fact, the unfolding of the lines on the surface subtly reveals the relief. Multiple crossings generate a whole range of values and make the drawing more dynamic.

The process is also attractive in color, in pastels or paints. Below, Degas (1834-1917) does not hesitate to mix fine lines of warm and cold color to represent the sensual back of his model.

Edgar Degas, “In front of the mirror”, 1889
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “L’abandon”, 1895

Colored hatching also contributed to the graphic writing of Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901); it transmitted the energy of his style. Here, on the yellow bed, the green shadows are surprising at first, but their dark value makes them intelligible while at the same time integrating them into the composition. The bent arm reinforces the intimate bond between the two women and frames the bright red mouth, the focal point of the image. In addition, this arm is illuminated by the indirect reflection of the bedspread, adding a colorful contrast to the flesh.


Claude Monet (1840-1926) is known for his interest in the variations of light (see the cathedrals of Rouen in Challenge#6). The series of poplars and the series of millstones, made between 1888 and 1891, are less well known. And yet, what a richness of color in the shadows: dark purple in the poplar series, soft blue-green, steel grey or grey-pink in the millstones, depending on the time of day or the season.

Claude Monet between 1889 and 1891: in the order (1) “Poplars”, (2) and (3) “Millstones (late summer)”, (4) “White jelly effect”.

Remember also in the Challenge#6 light making its way through the gap in the leaves at Auguste Renoir’s “Moulin de la Galette”. One can imagine the dance of the rays giving the rhythms to the Parisians in their Sunday best.

Snowy landscapes

This is an opportunity to review the Challenge#9 devoted to white: observe the snowy landscapes and find the shadows. Here, from the wisest to the boldest, are color samples taken from a selection of ten paintings: we see the color of snow in shadow and light respectively. Can you identify the painting they belong to?

The color of the snow according to whether it is lit (bottom line) or not (top line) according to 10 paintings from Challenge #9.

The color saturation of the last three samples (top right) is impressive. Who would believe that they represent snow, the ultimate white ? Note also how it can be dark in the light or light in the shade; as Matisse said, it’s all a matter of relationship.

Here are Claude Monet’s millstones again, this time plunged into the winter light.

Claude Monet, “Grindstones, snow effect in the morning”, 1891

In the painting by Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927), patches of slightly pinkish light adjoin a blue with lilac accents denoting a field plunged into shadow.

Armand Guillaumin, “White jelly at Crozant” (1892)

In the house of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the blue-violet shadow draws the relief of the garden around the house. The colors are intense, but if they are transformed into black and white, the values appear perfectly accurate.

Wassily Kandisky, “Cemetery and Rectory at Kochel”, 1909; the black and white version on the right shows the correctness of the tonal values.
Turzhansky, “Winter”, 1910

In “Winter”, Leonard Turzhansky (1875-1945) also uses a purplish grey to depict the shadows of houses thrown on the snow, while elsewhere very dark browns indicate the clean shadows of barely sketched figures.
Finally, the accents are more blue-green than purple in Robert Antoine Pinchon (1886-1943), while the white is tinged with pink in the evening light.

Robert Antoine Pinchon, “The Elbeuf Bridge under the snow

Sculptures and installations

Lighting can kill or sublimate a work. In the sculptures and installations that I have selected here, shadow is intimately part of the work.

Bernard Villers is passionate about color. He draws attention to what usually escapes us. “Art does not paint the visible, it makes visible” wrote Paul Klee. Look at the multiple shades of red and blue depending on whether the room is in shadow or in light. Note the meeting of the shadows and the reflection of the red on the white wall, creating a slight fluttering of the form.

Bernard Villers, exhibition at the Botanique in Brussels, 2018 – courtesy of the artist (photo V.Lacroix).

In this installation by Olafur Eliasson, while it is easy to name the color of the shadows, identifying the color of the lamps is much less so. Go ahead and guess! Each “simple” shadow is the result of a mixture of all but one light color. For every person lit, there are five shadows. From then on, five spots illuminate the scene, together producing a white light that is reflected off the wall. The answer (from right to left): two green spots, one magenta, one orange and one blue.

Olafur Eliasson, “Your uncertain shadow (color)”, 2010 (photo Anders Sune Berg- courtesy of Studio Olafur Eliasson)

When the poetry of a sculpture reveals itself in its shadow, one is under the spell, especially when it is about unusual words like those of Eerdekens. While with Tim Nobles and Sue Webster, we’re in for a real provocation.

Fred Eerdekens, “Bonheur fantôme” (courtesy of the artist).
Tim Nobles and Sue Webster
Nadia Kaabi-Linke, “Along the Mirador”, 2012 / 2019.
Installation at the Gropius Bau. Photo: Timo Kaabi-Linke, 2019 – courtesy of the artist.

But it is rather the anxiety and the memory of fateful days that runs through the visitor of Nadia Kaabi Linke‘s installation “Along the Mirador”.


The colored shadows of the stained glass windows amaze us but no longer surprise us. On the other hand, the shadow of a completely transparent table is astonishing. This is the case with “Shimmer”, a round side table designed by architect designer Patricia Urquiola.

Stained glass windows in Cordoba (CC-BY-SA V. Lacroix)
Patricia Urquiola, “Shimmer”, side table. While it is made of transparent glass, this table produces colorful shadows – courtesy of Design Museum Gent (photograph V. Lacroix).
Stained glass windows with colored shadows at the LAM in Villeneuve d’Asq (photograph CC-BY-SA V. Lacroix).

For our great pleasure the architects integrate these special new materials into their creations, as above, in the LAM museum in Villeneuve d’Asq.

Such colored shadows should also remind you of the work of Carlos Cruz Diez presented here.


On the roads illustrated by the Russian artist Екатерина маркова (on Instagram: @jenamartina) grey-blue-violet shadows contrast sometimes with yellow-green and sometimes with pink; together with the electric poles they give rhythm to the composition of the watercolors.

Two illustrations of Екатерина маркова (@jenamartina) –courtesy of the artist

Finally, like many other illustrators, Elena Chernova‘s bias is to represent shadows with very dense blacks, for a very graphic result.

Illustration by Elena Chernova – courtesy of the artist

Contemporary painting

In the painting below, Michael Ryan install his models in an area of bluish darkness, creating very interesting color contrasts. The first two paintings could have been included in Challenge#7 devoted to the magic hour palette. Indeed, the choice of colors gives us the impression of being bathed in darkness, at the limit of the visibility threshold of our retinal cones.

Michael Ryan: left: “Water garden at sunset”, right, “Lili at the TEFAF” 70×50 cm; below: “November morning no. 3”.

Plant shadows

The young artist Clément Davout paints the shadows of plants. In the painting below, the shadow takes up all the space, leaving only the lower right-hand corner for a few leaves of a house plant.

Clément Davout, “The night I lie”, 2018, oil on canvas, 70 x 70 cm – courtesy of the artist


The composition of Mirko Saviane’s photographs (on instagram: @kromirko) is mostly determined by the distribution of shadows. They highlight the bright colors of the houses in Burano.

Mirko Saviane, Burano – courtesy of the photographer


In this artistic journey, it is difficult to overlook “Doctor Caligari’s office” by the director Robert Wiene (1873-1938), which will determine a whole aesthetic in cinema.

“Dr. Caligari’s office” by Robert Wiene (1920).

Ignore the shadow

Have you noticed the absence of shadows in the icons? The explanation would be that they are light beings and therefore cannot have shadows. The application of gold, the light par excellence, reinforces this hypothesis. Nevertheless, the shadow in the faces and drapes gives substance to the volumes.

Andrei Rublev, “Trinity”, between 1408 and 1427.

There is no shadow in the Japanese prints either: neither in the landscapes, flowers or characters. To convince you, look at the “Mount Fuji” presented here, or the irises of Hiroshige presented there. Could it be a Japanese tradition linked to Emaki? This pictorial style told stories on scrolls, a bit like our comic strips, except that they were read from right to left. This detail is noticeable in the composition: our sense of reading would probably prefer the symmetrical picture (see below).

The story unfolded – in the truest sense of the word – before the eyes of the spectator. But when you pass in front of an illuminated object, at a given moment, you are in its shadow. From then on, the shadows vary and to represent them would be detrimental to reading. The same applies to perspective: there is no vanishing point, only a cavalier perspective.

illuminated novel of Nezame, painting of the court, 12th century.
The symmetrical version of the above illuminated novel.

Japonisme in vogue at a certain time (roughly between 1860–1910)– think of Van Gogh, Gauguin (cf. this article), Monet, etc., — undoubtedly influenced this mode of representation.

Also, ignoring shadows can be a personal choice. This is the option of the painter Pierre Boncompain. Each thing, each fruit is painted in its moment of plenitude.

Pierre Boncompain, above, “Batik with summer fruits”; on the left, “the tree of life”; on the right, “the pumpkin” – courtesy of the artist.


I was inspired by Armand Guillaumin’s painting “White Jelly” (see the section “snowy landscapes”). I preferred to re-frame it by considering only the right part. The result satisfies me. As for the copy of Wayne Thiebaud’s “Canyon Mountains”, it is not great but it allows me to introduce the artist in this article (my requests for publication authorization remained unanswered). In his landscapes with vertiginous relief, Wayne Thiebaud has the gift of arranging the shadows which give rhythm to the composition. Go and see the original here. Then have fun discovering his cakes, candies and lipstick. Purple-blue shadows are common in his work.

Vinciane Lacroix, left: after a detail of “Gelée Blanche” by Armand Guillaumin (gouache); right, after Wayne Thiebaud,


In my sketches, I have often had difficulty with shadows. Where to place them? How thick should they be? From then on, I began to use linocuts and woodcuts; they forced me to synthesize the scene, to make decisions. Afterwards, it is easier to introduce nuances, for example by adopting the aquatint technique.

CC-BY-SA Vinciane Lacroix, in order (1) “Beach Cabins”, linocut; (2) “Beguinage”, woodcut; (3) “Loundgers, aquatint.

Finally, like Clément Davout and many other artists, the shade of plants fascinates me. I watch for it on the walls, on the trees and in the houses, day and night. Sometimes, I discover the drawing of a body on the trunk of a tree as you may also see it on the presentation photograph of this challenge.

Plants shadows (photographs CC-BY-SA Vinciane Lacroix).

To go further

If you dream of mastering lighting technology to explore the full potential of shadows, learn German and visit the Farb-light-Zentrum in Zurich.

Your moving shadow, Farb-Licht-Zentrum / ZHdK – courtesy of Florian Bachmann

Go ahead!

Install lighting to highlight your staircase as optician Jean-François Van Assche did. Treat yourself to sculptural lamps that will cast their shadows on your walls and ceilings. Go out and capture the shadows of the night. During the day, watch the relief take shape when a shadow falls on it. And when the snow comes, remember this challenge, look for the blue shadows in the landscape.

If you wish to represent it, anything is permitted, provided it offers a contrast with the surface on which it is placed. And you can even ignore it, adopting this principle as a personal style that is probably more decorative.
Fascination of the shadows, this part of mystery in every being.

Choose lighting that will highlight stairs, furniture, refined objects – courtesy of J.-M. Van Assche, optician (photo V. Lacroix)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *