How to add Shadows and Highlight to your Acrylic Paintings

I am often asked how to know where the light source is coming from and how to add shadows to artwork. Today, I have a short and sweet lesson that will show you how to turn a basic snowy evergreen tree into one with dimension. I hope this easy tutorial will help you take the next step in learning how to paint by adding shade and highlights to your acrylic paintings.

Shades and highlights aren’t always necessary. Every painting and artist’s style is different. I don’t always shade my paintings, but depending on the aesthetic you want your artwork to have, it can be a crucial step.

Take a look at my two Snow Covered Bridge paintings I painted with my Inner Tribe.

They are very similar, but can you see the difference in lighting? I feel like you can see it right off the bat! Do you see how adding extra shading and highlights add depth to the painting?

In today’s example of how to shade and highlight your acrylic paintings, I am only using a couple of colors to create a snowy evergreen tree. This is an easy go-to tree to start practicing with inside your mixed media pad.

I have two shades of blue and white to paint for these trees and am using a 3/4″ flat brush for the whole thing.

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I will share how a shaded tree compares to a more simple one and will be painting them side by side for you to see the differences.

How to Paint Snowy Evergreen Trees

To start your snowy evergreen tree, paint a vertical line with blue paint. At the top of the line and with the corner of your brush, start dabbing the paint to form the tip. As you work your way down the line, rotate your brush to use the full width horizontally.

Shade and Highlight The Social Easel

Always remember to have enough paint on your brush. One of the most common issues I see when beginners start painting is that there isn’t enough paint on the brush. This can cause skipping and make it harder to achieve the look you want. You can see in the video below how much paint to have on your brush.

Stagger your movements to create an organic pattern. These are not actual brush strokes, just dabbing quickly.

Decide how thick and wide you want your tree as you work. You don’t want a perfect triangle, just gradually get wider as you work your way down.

My trees are full, lush evergreens. I cover my line and don’t want to see the trunk. I just use it as a reference point to remind myself of where the middle of the tree is.

Shade and Highlight Acrylic Paintings dab The Social Easel Online Paint Studio

Keep your flat brush horizontal. If you pull down or have branches that form an ‘A’ shape, the tree will look unnatural.

You can also have more variety in the thickness of each dab by how much pressure you apply. Stager using thick and thin brush marks, don’t make it all the same.

Next, use the same dabbing technique to add a layer of snow. I didn’t worry about rinsing my blue paint from the brush and just went right into the white. This will give another layer of variance and mid-tone colors.

Moving fast makes the brush marks more sporadic, not overly planned out. If you are too intentional with each dab, it will look like dash marks, and every mark will look identical.

Yes, you can stop here and have a pretty painting with a beautiful tree, but we are here to take that next step! Let’s add some shading to your snowy evergreen tree. It will look completely different!

Snowy Foreground

Let’s add a quick snowy foreground so that our trees aren’t floating in the air.

Add a little bit of blue paint to your brush and just streak it onto your painting’s foreground below the tree. Then pull a bunch of white paint in to make it a very pale blue and white blend.

Shade and Highlight Acrylic Paintings Evergreen Tree The Social Easel Online Paint Studio

Light Source

To properly shade and highlight acrylic paintings, we need to consider the light source in the composition. This doesn’t mean you need a big ol’ sun! We just have to decide where the sun rays would be shining. Even on a cloudy day, brightness will come from any certain angle.

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No matter what you decide to paint, light is somewhere, and if you want to have that look of dimension in your work, you have to determine where the light is coming from.

For instance, if you are painting a sunrise, it would be coming from your horizon line.

Take a look at my tree.

Shade and Highlight Acrylic Paintings The Social Easel Online Paint Studio Light Source

Can you see where I decided my light source would be?

I chose mid-day light, and you can see my light source is coming from the top right corner. This means that I need to add shadows to the lower left side of my tree.

Shadows

I like to add shadows to my paintings first. With a clean brush, grab your darkest color and start dabbing it down the tree’s edge you want to have the shade. Don’t make it solid. Keep the same fast rhythm to your movement as before and create a gradient by adding more gaps toward the tree’s center.

You can then incorporate some mid-tone blue paint in a few areas and more towards the centerline. Almost like ombre!

Highlights

Highlighting the snowy evergreen trees is just as simple as all the above! With some white paint on your brush, you now want to focus your attention on the side closest to your light source.

My tree’s top right is closest to the sun so there are more concentrated white brush marks there. As I move down the side, the edge is still bright, but just like the shadows, it becomes more sporadic near the center.

Shade and Highlight Acrylic Paintings Evergreen Tree The Social Easel Online Paint Studio

Final Touches

Finish off with some shadows in your foreground. Lightly brush in some shading just below your tree’s dark side and sweep it out into the snow.

Step back and look at your painting to see if you want to make any changes. When I teach inside my Inner Tribe, I often tell my Tribe Sisters to take a quick snapshot as they work. Sometimes seeing the painting from a different view gives you a new set of eyes.

I like the shadowed edge to be pretty dark and ended up adding in a tiny bit of black to my blue and dabbing just the tips of those outer branches one more time.

Watch my Shadows and Highlights 101 painting tutorial

I always recommend you practice in a mixed media pad. You can play with how dark you like your shadows and how bright you want your highlights.

You can use these trees in so many different compositions! They would look great in my November Painting of the Month Club tutorial!

Hopefully, this quick and easy tutorial helps you see the difference of shade and highlight in acrylic paintings and inspires you to try it out!

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