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Warmth in shadows of a portrait oil painting
It's often difficult to think of shadows as warm. We tend to view the shade as a cool reprieve from the hot sun. And so our minds are programed to see cool colors when we see shadows.

One the the amazing things in learning to paint, is learning to open one’s mind to possibilities. There are very few absolutes in nature. The local color black, under noon-day light, is not as black as if it were in shadow. In fact, it isn't black at all. Light is not always warm and shadow isn’t always cool. Particularly so in portraiture.

It was Daniel Gerhartz that taught me to see the warmth in shadows on the human face. At first, I had to go completely on faith when he told me to warm up the shadows. They didn’t look so warm to me. However, after a few days of painting under the cool north studio light, I started to be able to see warmth in the shadows. It could very well have been simply the power of suggestion, but I’m inclined to think otherwise. At that point in my painting journey, I had painted primarily from photos. I had very little experience painting from life, and so, little experience in seeing the real life warmth of flesh tones.

My experience with Daniel taught me to critical things that changed my how I painted portraits almost instantly:

  • There is no substitute for painting from life. My eyes are far better equipped to discern nuances of neutrals and color, than any camera. I started painting from life.
  • I began to observe that more often than not, shadows on flesh tones are warm.

I’ve provided a high resolution close up of this latest completed portrait for closer examination, along with a review of why and how I chose the temperatures of the different planes.

Highlights are the lightest of lights that often bounce completely off a surface and reflect the original light source. Highlights tend to occur in highly reflective surfaces (shiny or wet). In this case the highlights are cool.

Lights are where the light illuminates (not bounces off like highlights) the surface of the face. Flesh under any sort of light tends to be warm. The lit surface areas are warm in this painting.

Less lights are transition surfaces where the light isn’t as strong as in the directly lit areas. Some people call these half-tones, but I find the term misleading. I often refer to less lights as receding light, since the light is often found in receding planes. Less lights tend to express the true local color of the object being painted. My model has almost porcelain hued skill. Overall, her skin tone presents as very cool white. The less light surfaces of her skin are very cool.

Shadows are surfaces that are not lit. There are many types of shadows, but there is no light in them, there is no real color in them. There is, however, a temperature, that can only be expressed with color. In this case the only true shadow in in the recess of the model’s hair. I painted them using a mixture of transparent hues that lean toward the red violet area of the color wheel. I neutralized them with cool transparent hues.

  • Reflected lights, is usually grouped with shadows, because they are not being lit by a direct source of light. The model in this painting was directly lit by diffused daylight bulbs, but these were not the only light source in the room. There was other light in the room that reflected onto objects and clothing which in turn reflected onto the areas of the face not directly lit by the primary light. The reflected light, in this case is very very warm.

Nothing about light, color, and temperature is absolute. It is always relative to what is next to it. I tend to lean toward a warmer tones, it’s simply a personal preference. But in painting flesh tones, I’ve noticed that there is a real benefit for looking for warmth in shadows and reflected light. I cannot paint flesh and blood. I can only paint paint. Therefore I feel I need to take advantage of the strong association of flesh with warm color.