Creating Dimensions with Core Shadow


Hi Fellow Artist! Every so often while I’m painting, I look at it and I say to myself, “Wow, this feels very flat. What can I do to help that?” Then that light bulb comes on in my head: “Oh, I’ve forgotten my core shadows!” Let’s talk about how we can have our subject matter feel a bit more rounded by creating dimension.

Highlight, mid tone, half tone, core shadow, and reflective light on an object.

So how do I help things look rounder? Take notice of the light shining on this cup. See the gradation? There’s a very strong highlight, then a mid tone, and next to that there’s a half tone, then finally the darkest part where the light doesn’t reach, called the Core Shadow. Then from the core shadow it goes over to the very edge where it catches the reflective light. Sometimes it’s a little hard to see reflective light depending on how strong or how subtle the light may be. I’ll use my hand to create more reflective color which makes it easier to see the core shadow. That core shadow helps things to feel more rounded. So when you’re painting, remember to make that darker, core shadow section.

Painting "Crow" by Thomas Blackshear.

To help you get a better example of what I’m talking about, let’s look at the artwork of a close friend of mine. Thomas Blackshear is an excellent artist who does incredible work. I’ve always been amazed at his skill set. He’s more gifted than most people I know personally. We are going to look at a close up of this particular painting called “Crow” to help us understand more about core shadows in various areas.

Arrows pointing out core shadows in the sleeve and armband of subject from "Crow" painting.


Notice the darker edge on the folds of the sleeve: that would represent the core shadow. And it moves from there into the reflective light. Again, on the arm ring we’re seeing the core shadow and the reflective light (remembering the layout on the cup?).



Arrow pointing out core shadow and reflective light on chin of subject from "Crow" painting.


You see the core shadow again, here on the chin, going into that lighter reflective area just underneath it.


Thomas gives us a really good example of keeping things dimensional. Check out his work. I think you will truly love what you see. (By the way, Thomas was a big part of my journey to become an artist! If you don’t know that story yet, you can read about it here).

Now here’s how to help bring dimension to something that is flat sided. On this flat object we have the strongest light (right side), the shadow side (left), and of course, the high contrast area where they meet (the corner). As the shadow side falls away, it’s catching some of the reflective light (closer toward the back left).

Arrows pointing out high contrast lighting at the corner of a flat-surfaced, rectangular object.

I prefer to paint flat sided objects as a gradient from dark to light rather than one flat color (the shadow side). The same goes for the light side. I paint the lightest area next to the darkest (at the corner) and gradually get a little darker (toward the outer edge). You can also do it the opposite way on the light side. Just think gradation rather than flat. That tends to give more dimensionality.

Comparison of two flat-sided, rectangular objects: Right hand image visually protrudes due to light/shadow gradient and reflective lighting.So which box appears to protrude more at the corners? I hope you’re seeing that the box on the right is the one that visually seems to protrude. And what have I done to create that effect? I added a bit more light up and down in the areas where the arrows point.

By keeping this in mind, and putting it into action, you can bring more dimension to your artwork.

Core shadows pointed out on the surface of a highly reflective (and rounded) object.

There are times when you may want to portray a more reflective surface. This can be tricky because there’s more bounce light or reflections catching the surface from different angles, rather than a one point light source.  However, maintain the basic principles: find where you can put your core shadows and then allow for those reflective lights to come in. It still works to create dimensionality. So know the principles (remember the cup layout), apply the principles, and then allow light to bounce wherever it is. Even if it’s a very reflective surface or object, the principle remains the same. Continue painting and get those objects nice and round! They’ll look much more realistic once you’ve created dimension.

Hope you enjoy the tips! If you find this helpful, give me a like on Facebook or YouTube, subscribe, and check out our other blog posts.

For Further Inspiration. . .

In my painting “Gleaming Flight” the reflective light and core shadows bring dimension to the rounded trunks and curved branches of the trees, and help convey the form and fullness of the hedges. But only exploration can reveal what is around the bend. Visit my Shop page for available prints of this painting, and to view the full collection.

"Gleaming Flight" painting by Donald Towns