Colors of Light and Shadow

Newberry Art Tutorials

Light and shadow are two of the most challenging problems facing a painter. Painters can’t harness real light and shadow; instead they must rely on subtle gradations of color to create the illusion.

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1634. Galleria degli Uffizi

In general, I use “light” in painting to mean all those areas which are directly lit by a light source.  For example, in this Rembrandt self-portrait most of his face, the glow behind him, some of his hair, and the front of his coat are in the light. The “shadows” are all those areas which fall outside of the light. To demonstrate the division between light and shadow, I cut and pasted squares of color taken from this painting, and divided them into two groups below.

On the left are squares taken from the shadows from his face, coat, hair, and the wall. Notice how extremely close in dark tone they are. 

On the light side, there is a larger range of colors and hues.


The thing to understand is that in the light areas the painter has more freedom with the whites, oranges, grays, yellows, blues, greens etc. But, in the shadow areas, the painter must be very careful to keep the shadows homogeneous. Rembrandt painted all the shadows as if they were covered by a dark veil.

Monet is another painter known for his wonderful light, yet he is quite different from Rembrandt.

Monet, Impression, soleil levant, 1872. Musée Marmottan Monet

Here Monet is not making dark shadows, yet he is making his shadows homogeneous by linking them with a blue hue. It is as if he placed all the shadows under a blue filter.

In Monet’s light areas he has painted both warm and cool colors. If you squint your eyes looking at the color charts below, you can see the larger range of color in the light section.


Both Rembrandt and Monet are doing similar things; their shadows are very subtle and they use both warm and cool colors for their light areas.

I hope you enjoyed seeing shadow and light in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry

3 Replies to “Colors of Light and Shadow”

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