Since it is a shape, it certainly qualifies as an element of your picture design. It has colors and can have a variety of edges, values, and sizes. Yet a shadow is empty, see-through. What darkens it is mostly absent from it. (Art by Phillipa Leathers from her picture book The Black Rabbit.)

A shadow is a shape of something that isn’t there.  

No physical object fills that space. 

A light or an object blocking the light might be near and influence the shape. It might even attach to the shadow at an end. But it doesn’t really belong. It’s a quantum relationship.

What causes it is absent from it. 

So shadows are apparitions. Which makes them perfect for Halloween. They can turn up the tension. Drop the temperature. Imbue the natural world with mystery. 

Shadows can even boast a character arc. On the bright sunny day that opens the picture book The Black Rabbit by Philippa Leathers (Candlewick Press, 2013), a towering, looming shadow menaces Rabbit until it saves the day. Friendly ghosts, anyone?

For artists, shadows provide a helpful kit of design principles in action that can rescue your picture  They unify by connecting the shapes, pull a scene together, or break it up with orchestrated contrasts of value and color. Shadows inject gradation, alternation, and repetition with variation – more ways artists evoke and play with change in composition.

Shadows also clarify. Any value change on a form is a shadow and serves to define that form.

They can also obscure. Confuse and bamboozle us. Trip our imaginations.

Shadows embody nothing real. Or do they? 

Maybe they hide a story’s actors, like the cunning, deviously strategic carrots in Creepy Carrots, the wildly popular picture book by Aaron Reynolds with illustrations by Peter Brown (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2012).

Dorian Iten’s guest vlog post on Stan Prokopenko’s fabulous YouTube channel Proko breaks down the ingredients of the play of light on form. His video introduces what he calls the Terminator the arc that boldly separates the form light from the form shadow on a curved surface. (With that name, perfect again for Halloween.)

Musician Greg on his YouTube channel Studio214 takes us through his execution of a spooky room interior laden with shadows to remind us of the time of year it is.