Shadowing Savvy: It’s all Subjective

ssd_happyhaunting-tutorialLet’s face it we could talk about drop shadows all day and there would be close to a million different ideas (okay not really a million, lol), theories and opinions about what is right or wrong, what looks good and what doesn’t. In life and in art shadows are a science. That’s to say, the how & the why, is based on real, *gasp* factual science.

In real life shadows just are. They live everywhere. Unless you’ve studied art, photography, physics or sciography (the study of shadows in architecture) we’re all a bit oblivious when it comes to shadows. We know they exist but we don’t really pay attention to them all that much. When traditional scrapbooking and technology converged we began to pay attention to shadows more. It seemed all at once we had the same collective question: how do I make my pages look like that? Of course that’s because paper scrapbooking “lives” in the real world. Our 2D pages :( not so much.

With the advent of scrapbooking/publishing software we were given the drop shadow to create our own world of dimension. This has given us the freedom to create shadows that mimic reality. As if you could reach out and touch the elements on a page. It’s only natural to question the how & the why to better understand what you are creating. But for digital scrapbooking I say forego the science and create a personal shadowing style that is more subjective. That’s not to say I don’t believe in following some of the rules, the key is to know which ones.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”Pablo Picasso


You’re probably saying, “Kiana tell me which rules you follow?”

I’m so glad you asked let’s jump into it! :)

Avoid Black for Shadows – most shadows in nature aren’t a true black; depending on light sources, depth, size etc. they may look black. Usually this is a chromatic black, it looks black but isn’t true black. It’s actually a dark color of some kind. Some people may use a complementary color (to the underlying color) which will produce a natural but subtle effect. I use the chromatic black option and have my shadows set at a dark brown color – RGB#221810 to be exact. I used Adobe’s Color Wheel to find the complementary color to the green paper. I’ve included a screenshot of my shadow versus a complementary colored shadow for comparison on the flower below.

Screenshot 2021-12-23 avoidblackshadows

Modest Blend Modes  – basically there’s two I use, linear burn or multiply. Multiply will multiply (DOH!) the source color with the underlying color(s) while Linear Burn will darken (or burn) the underlying color(s). Most of my shadows are done with linear burn, the main time I use multiply is if the underlying color(s) are dark, like a black background paper. Using the same flower from above I switched out the background and used the two wood patterns, a dark version and a lighter version, Flergs included in her kit. Here’s a tip: always uncheck the global light box next to your angle, this way if you adjust a shadow on another layer it won’t change all the layers!

Screenshot 2021-12-23 modestblendmode

Size and Distance  – besides the color and blend modes of my shadows – size and distance are the next biggest things I pay attention to when creating a page. The basic idea when I’m shadowing my elements and papers is to look at what order everything is sitting at on the page. Things like, how close is it to the main background, what size element is it, is it sitting on top of something else, is it holding something down? The easiest way to think about this, for me at least, is by imagining my page as a traditional paper page. My buttons wouldn’t have bigger shadows than a flower –BUT– I also take artistic license with some things like butterflies and tend to break the rules when I see fit. I created this cluster with a few examples.

Here is the shadow-free version.

Screenshot 2021-12-23 sizedistance noshadow

Starting with what’s closest to the main background and working my way up the layers on my layer palette. These are the settings for the drop shadow layer styles. The shadowed preview is below showing what it looks like.

  • mixed media scatter does not get a shadow, think of this a base, Flergs does a great job with these by adding shadows to the bits that sit above her base glitter layers -like those stars
  • black lace ribbon sits close to the background but also has an airy feel so my shadow isn’t too dark or too far away from the background
    Opacity = 35, Angle = 45°, Distance = 10, Spread = 5, Size = 10, Blend Mode = Linear Burn
  • ribbon is a heavier and thicker than lace but still pretty close to the background again the distance/size isn’t too big
    Opacity = 40, Angle = 45°, Distance = 15, Spread = 2, Size = 15, Blend Mode = Linear Burn
  • paper scalloped tag is close to background but I gave it a bit more distance/size since it sits on top of the ribbons
    Opacity = 32, Angle = 45°, Distance = 25, Spread = 10, Size = 15, Blend Mode = Linear Burn
  • the button is holding down the tag and ribbons to the background so it has a smaller distance/size as if pinching them together
    Opacity = 45, Angle = 45°, Distance = 10, Spread = 5, Size = 10, Blend Mode = Linear Burn
  • paper feather and foliage are going to be heavy but also need more distance & size since they are farther from the background
    (feather) Opacity = 45, Angle = 41°, Distance = 82, Spread = 2, Size = 66, Blend Mode = Linear Burn
    (foliage) Opacity = 41, Angle = 45°, Distance = 55, Spread = 0, Size = 42, Blend Mode = Linear Burn
  • the flat bloom is closer to the tag so has a smaller distance & size than the yellow flower which I gave a bit more the orange flower is big, bulky and on top so it gets a bigger distance and size and the ribbon acts as a fastener for the big flower but the ends also hang a bit so the size and distance are bigger too, but I used multiply blend mode
    (flat bloom) Opacity = 32, Angle = 45°, Distance = 25, Spread = 10, Size = 15, Blend Mode = Linear Burn
    (yellow flower) Opacity = 41, Angle = 45°, Distance = 55, Spread = 0, Size = 42, Blend Mode = Linear Burn
    (orange flower ) Opacity = 40, Angle = 42°, Distance = 124, Spread = 5, Size = 57, Blend Mode = Linear Burn
    (ribbon) Opacity = 50, Angle = 47°, Distance = 69, Spread = 0, Size = 44, Blend Mode = Multiply
  • and I took artistic license on the bats as I tend to like my “flyers” to look as if they are floating above the page
    Opacity = 35, Angle = 47°, Distance = 104, Spread = 0, Size = 44, Blend Mode = Multiply

Screenshot 2021-12-23 sizedistance comments

Screenshot 2021-12-23 sizedistance shadows

Don’t Shadow That – this one is pretty simple; I don’t put shadows on paint, mixed media, doodles, glitter or text/fonts. The only exception with text is if I’m using a font to create my own “alpha” for a title word.

Light Source & Direction – I know this gets asked a lot. In the real world there isn’t always one single light source unless you are in a controlled environment ie. a studio. And if you think about it, even a paper page is going to have some differences in shadows depending on how you hold the page, what time of day (noon vs. midnight), where you are (outside vs. a single lamp living room). This is where I really embrace the subjective stance when I’m creating my pages. If you see above with my cluster, I vary my angles depending on how they look to me. They all start at 45° and then I tweak from there as I build my page. (yeah I’m a rebel 😉 ) But for basics sake, if your light source (lamp, sun, flashlight) is shining from the top-left side of your page the shadows would be cast to the bottom-right of the object and vice versa. *see the visual*


Whew! This was pretty long. It took me a few hours to put this together along with screenshots for you all. I did enjoy it though and hope you all can understand everything here. I also want to point you to a quick tip for washi tape. It’s an older tutorial BUT I tried it today and I will be using this method from here on out.

While this post doesn’t cover everything about shadows it will definitely get you started on creating some eye-catching shadows. If you enjoyed this, I have some other shadowing ideas in mind so stay tuned. Keep in mind, art in an academic sense has rules yes, but creating things we love are subjective. It’s all about your personal opinion. Whether you love your pages with black, brown or rainbow shadows (lol), big or small, light or dark, then I say continue doing what you love. Our personal shadowing styles, just like our art, doesn’t have to please anyone else.

Other shadowing tutorials can be found HERE and while they might have been posted some time ago, I read through them before writing this post and they have LOTS of valuable content that is still relevant today, so if you need more ideas, check them out.

Here is my completed layout. I used my cluster and recorded my whole process just to watch. I didn’t explain anything in the video based on the poll in the forum; visuals with text seem to be the requested way to follow along and put into action.


Hopefully this tutorial has helped or inspired you in some way. If you have questions about anything I mentioned let me know in the forum I’m happy to help! :)

Supplies used: Fall-o-ween Collection by Studio Flergs & Half-Life Set 5 by Brook Mageee (rotated the template)

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