Shadow Tracing

Shadow tracing is a project that students from about 2nd or 3rd grade and up will love doing. It fits right in with discussions about composition, color theory, and positive/negative shapes. In the interest of full disclosure, one of the reasons students love it so much is that they have to go outside to do it! I guess we don’t get out as often as weshould in Art class, so can you blame them??

Shadow tracing is low stress for students and has minimal prep for teachers. Students can usually finish one of these paintings in a single class period, or you may want to let your students do a few tracings the first day and paint them the next. Here’s how you do it….

On a bright, sunny day, look outside for areas with strong shadow patterns, on the ground or even against buildings. All kinds of things make interesting shadows…. fences, railings, chairs, trees and all kinds of plants, just to name a few. Once you start looking for shadows, you’ll be amazed at how you’ll be noticing them everywhere! (This is a great exercise for learning to see like an artist!)

Lay a piece of white construction paper (I like 12×18, but you can work smaller or larger if you want) over the shadow and turn it until you have a composition you’re satisfied with. Then, trace the shadow with a pencil. (You’ll need to work quickly, as shadows change with the movement of the sun!) Your tracing will show both positive and negative shapes. (The shadow is the positive shape and the space around it is the negative shape.)

Back inside, you can instruct your students how you’d like them to paint their tracings. Some possible ideas are warm and cool colors, complimentary colors, analogous colors (like the example here), tints and shades of a color…. the list could go on and on. You get the idea! The result will be a classroom full of very unique abstract paintings…. no two will be alike!

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5 Responses to Shadow Tracing

  1. .Alli.son. November 13, 2008 at 4:38 pm #

    So cool!!

  2. Anonymous November 13, 2008 at 6:35 pm #

    All of the students can call their finished piece “The Shadow”.
    Great idea!! RT

  3. lynette April 2, 2013 at 6:13 am #

    As a non-art student myself I would love even just a paragraph or two on the “lecture” part of the lesson where you explain how negative and positive space are used in paintings or how analogous colors or warm or cool colors affect a piece. I love your ideas, and I’ve used them, but some sample art instruction would be cool too!

    • Cheryl Trowbridge April 2, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

      Lynette, thank you for bringing that to my attention… I can definitely do a better job of explaining those art concepts, or at least having links to previous posts if I’ve explained them before. I’ll plan to write some posts on those specific topics soon. In the meantime, check out the art history glossary on


  1. Nine Summer Activities for Families That Get the Kids Out the Door - Overcoming School - May 27, 2015

    […] Draw and paint shadow trees – To do this, take a large piece of paper outside on a sunny day. Find an interesting shadow from a tree or plant. Trace the shadow onto your piece of paper. Take your paper to the porch or driveway and paint inside the shadow lines with one color and outside with a different color. To make the most of this, have your kids figure out when the shadows are the most crisp and detailed during the day. Also, put something hard under your paper if you’re tracing on the ground so you don’t frustrate little people who keep sticking their pencils through the paper and into the dirt.  […]