Nicholas Baxter

Realism Techniques 5

My Black Sauce

In order to add richness, subtlety and depth to the darkest areas of my paitnings, I avoid the use of the color black entirely (i.e. Ivory Black, Lamp Black, etc.), opting instead for my own dark color blend.

I’ve found through my experience that the mixture of several dark colors creates a new color approaching the solidity of true black when applied in enough thick layers, yet yielding enough translucency in thinner applications to open up a much wider range of subtle color variation.  This flexibility and translucency in turn creates the possibility of much more realistic shadows and a truly convincing “absence of light” that the viewer can still see into.

Mixing up my special black sauce at the start of a new painting. This recipe consisted of Ultramarine, Burnt Umber, Veridian, and Alizarin.


I use a simple demonstration during my instructional seminars to prove the necessity of what I call “translucent shadows.”  I find a well-lit patch of space in the room and hold an opaque object in front of my outstretched arm, casting a prominent shadow across it.  I then invite the audience to answer the following rhetorical questions:

  1. Did the colors of my arm magically change into the colors of the shadow, like a chameleon’s skin changing to match its surroundings?
  2. Assuming not, did the colors of my arm therefore stay the same as they were before being cast in shadow?
  3. Similarly, were you able to still see the shadowed area of my arm, or was it completely swallowed up by an opaque, black, absence of light?
  4. Assuming it was visible, would you conclude that there was still a percentage of indirect light still present within the darkened shadow area?

What this demonstration makes obvious is the need for mimicking the processes of physics and light in the natural world within our paintings, as a method of making them accurately replicate that world.  This means painting objects or spaces close to their fully lit appearance and then obscuring them by using translucent shadow glazes, to the proper degree, and with the necessary color hues.

Of course, with experience, shortcuts can be taken on this process and this rule of sorts can be effectively broken for even further nuanced results.  In my own work, I don’t paint every single object or space in its fully lit colors before glazing it into shadow–instead I often aim for a middle point, knowing that after one or more glaze layers it will have the same appearance as if I hadn’t taken the shortcut. This saves time and effort, while maintaining the high level of control necessary for realistic illusions.

Logically, it also follows that if you take too big of a shortcut by matching a shadowed object’s final color during your underpainting, then glaze a translucent shadow over it to create the convincing, full-bodied richness of a realistic shadow, the cumulative effect will obviously make it darker than you had originally intended.  Simple trial and error yields the correct steps, shortcuts, and glazing formulas to achieve the exact results you had intended.

Translucent shadows place the objects within the murky depths of the space without completely obscuring them. Immense amounts of time and sanity were saved by glazing over whole areas of completed forms (“indirect” painting) rather than precisely matching every shadow color contained within each object through “direct” or opaque painting methods.