Graphic Design Tutorial About How To Properly Create Shadows

A Talk (and Tutorial) About Shadows

October 8 2014
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Posted By : Elle Phillips in Graphic Design

With the advancement of technology and software programs such as Adobe Photoshop, filters such as “shadows” would assume to make our jobs as graphic designers easier by giving us the ability to add a shadow to any layer or object with the click of a button.

Well, not really.

One of the most common mistakes I see as a professional is the misuse of shadows by amateur designers. They tend to get over-used, for one (which is often the biggest mistake), but going even further is their use of the drop shadow filter with absolutely no thought to anything other than the generic settings. It’s my personal belief that by adding a drop shadow filter in Photoshop, Adobe inadvertently ruined the eye and artistic mind of most budding young designers.

But fear not, creative youth! I’m here to point out this discretion and help you back onto the path of credibility (and creativity).

First, let’s go back to your Jr. High and High School art classes. Heck, even Elementary school if they kept any sort of Art program in tact. Shadows are a part of nature. Everything you see, day or night, light or dark, has some kind of shadow attached to it. Look at the smartphone you’re reading this on… see how the phone casts a shadow in your hand? Now look deeper… are there actually multiple shadows? If there’s more than one light source in your room, or even reflections of light off the wall or a shiny table, then a “yes” answer is very likely.

Now let’s analyze the shadow(s) even further… look at the direction the shadow is being cast and note if it’s stopped by a hard edge or a feathered edge. Look at the color of the shadow; it’s not just black or gray, more likely it’s simply a darker version of your own skin tone. Is it much darker, barely darker, or a combination of both? As it stretches outward, does it become lighter the farther it gets and stay much darker where the phone actually touches your skin? Is there another shadow overlaying the one your smartphone or tablet is casting, maybe one from your head or your fingers curled around it? Take note of how the shadows overlay each other.

By hyper-analyzing any shadow, you may begin to remember those art classes of your youth where painting or drawing shadows was so important in order to give your subjects depth. This is no different in design, but it seems that those observation skills get lost or pushed to the way-side when given the opportunity to simply click on a button called “drop shadow.” I assure you, your laziness has not gone unnoticed.

So how do you resolve the problem? Simple: don’t click the button.

I’m serious, don’t do it! Don’t ever click that damn button again. Ever! Only in the rarest of cases would a realistic, nature-made drop shadow actually LOOK as it does in the default settings of Photoshop, and even then it still looks crappy. The best designers don’t use that button, and you shouldn’t either. Any REAL shadow effect should take more time and effort, and should never be squandered for a quick-and-easy solution. With that, you will continue to look like an amateur and your designs will never have that professional quality your much-higher-paid peers’ have.

Now that you’ve been sufficiently lectured, let me help you with what you SHOULD do when the need for a drop shadow arises. My example here will be something simple just to get you familiar with a couple of different methods. Take the lessons here as far as you can possibly imagine with different shapes, effects, etc. So long as you understand what you’re actually capable of doing, your limits hold no bounds. So in my example for a lesson on designing shadows, I’ll be using a couple of images I took with a camera and combining them into a single image. This is a book cover and interior layout I did for a new author, Jocelyn Wadsworth, and I wanted to put the cover and open book shot together for display in my personal portfolio, as well as for promotional purposes for the Author. Now, because I only had one book to work with, I took two photographs: One of the cover, and one open to a random page in the book. I cropped both images in photoshop and put them onto a simple background for the sake of not distracting from the book itself. Now all I need to do is make these two pieces look as if they were taken together, in the same shot, because as it stands, they appear to be floating without any shadows to ground them or give them depth.

Freelance Graphic Design Tutorial about Shadows

For something like this, the standard drop-shadow filter DEFINITELY would not work, but of course I know people who’ve done it and thought their work was beautiful (sigh). In my company, such laziness would get you fired. No, here you need a creative mind but more importantly, natural observation skills. First, we need to start with light before we can decided where our shadows will go. In this case, I’d like the light to be coming from a distance over my right shoulder (if I were looking straight-on at this display). That would mean that the shadows being cast would move behind and to the left of the actual objects.

Since the light source will be coming from a distance and the book edges are fairly straight, I’m going to leave the edge of my “long” shadow only slightly feathered. This won’t be a hard light, so a light feather will be natural. So I’ll grab my Polygonal Lasso tool, set a feather of about 10 pixels (I’m doing this at a smaller size for web posting purposes — a high-res image may require more feather), and I’m just going to create my lasso path so it’s slightly in front of, to the sides and far behind the cover of my book, then fill it with a dark reddish-black (chosen because the color of the book cover will naturally reflect onto the light surface) on a separate layer that sits below the book cover. I’m setting the layer to “Multiply” in order to catch the natural color changes from the background, and will drop the opacity to about 25%. This is how it looks:

Red Couch Creative Tutorial about Shadows

Not so pretty yet, but we’re not done yet. At the very least, we’ve now grounded our cover image. Now we need to add a little bit of nature into the mix… look at your phone or tablet as it sits on a table and casts a distant shadow. See how it sort of fades away as it gets further? So now I’ll add a mask to my drop shadow, and simply use my paintbrush set at full-feather and at a fairly large radius to gently remove some of the farther edges of the shadow we just created. Click far and away, just to remove some of the harshness of the shadow, and this is how it should look:

Freelance Graphic Design Tutorial about Shadows

As you can see, a much more natural-looking shadow, and with some expertise, only takes a minute to create… but we’re still not done. Remember when I mentioned multiple shadows being cast at the same time? There are most often two distinct shadows that can be seen cast from any object. This was my “long” shadow, but now we need to create our “short” shadow. When an object meets the surface of another plane or object, there’s often a very dark, harder shadow that makes the object appear as if it’s securely anchored to the plane. That’s what we’ll create now. So here I’ll create a second layer in Photoshop, set it to “Multiply” as well, and I’ll set my Polygonal Lasso to a feather of say only 2 or 3. We want this shadow to have harder edges, and of course we’re only going to hug the edge of the book. I’ll click my lasso path so it’s barely outside the edges of the bottom of my book cover, and fill it with the same black, this time dropping the opacity of the layer to about 80%. Here’s how the initial result looks:

Freelance Graphic Design Inspiration

Again, not exactly pretty, but of course that’s before we repeat the steps from above and put a mask on our second “short” shadow layer, then use the same method to remove and blend-out the shadow as we used before. This may take some practice, but it’s fairly simple once you understand what effect you’re trying to achieve. Here’s the final result of our fully-anchored and natural-looking shadow, that nobody will appreciate but you, because you’re the only one who will know that the shadow is a fake and not the result of an actual photograph:

Graphic Design Inspiration by Red Couch Creative

Now that one of our objects has an anchor, use the same method for the inside of the book. But don’t forget that the inside of the right-hand page will be casting a shadow of its own! Based on the direction of our light, we’re going to see some semblance of shadow directing toward the inside-left page (and remember that shadows don’t bend unless there’s a second source of light, so make sure that shadow is casting in a straight direction, albeit with some fading as the shadow moves further away). So, using the same methods as above to create long and short shadows based on the direction of our light, here’s the final product:

Customm shadows tutorial by Elle Phillips

Note that I also added some slight shadow between the book cover and the pages of the open book. You can’t forget, a shadow would be cast there even in the slightest degree, and sometimes the slightest alterations in a shadow can make all the difference.

I hope this helps you understand how easy it really is (with a minor amount of practice) to create natural-looking shadows. It’s not as hard as you may think, and your work will show a huge level of professionalism. I don’t doubt that I just saved you some time when you’ve tried to create a drop shadow from the filter button, then separated the layer and tried using the Distort tool to make it stretch and fade with minimal success. You’ve done it. I know you have. And it probably took you an hour to get a decent-looking shadow that I just showed you how to create in less than 10 minutes. So do me a favor… PROMISE me you won’t click that button again! Ever! :)