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  • Writer's pictureLeslie McCrea, artist

How To Build A Shadow Box For Still Life Painting

Photo Of A Pear In A Shadow Box
Shadow Box Pear

Last January, I turned an empty basement room into a studio for my art making. It's a lovely place to work, and I'll tell you more about it in another post, but I found it has one drawback: I lit it so well that I have a hard time finding shadows when I'm painting from a still life. It's an easy problem to solve with a shadow box, so I made one this week, and I thought I'd share how I did it with you.

I found some plans for really beautifully crafted wooden shadow boxes online. So if you have the tools and carpentry skills to make one yourself, go for it! I don't have what I'd need, so I had make a different plan; something inexpensive, easy, and quick was what I wanted. I found several plans for those also, so I borrowed some ideas and devised a box that would work for me.

Do-It-Yourself Shadow Box Materials:

  • a small box (mine is 14"x14"x12") with packing tape if it is not folded together yet.

  • colored paper (I had Canson Mi Teintes Pastel paper 16"x12" in a warm grey)

  • 2 sheets 20"x 30" corrugated cardboard

  • a clip on book light (This one is LED and rechargeable)

  • a fat quarter of fabric (approx. 18" x 21"; these are about $1 at Walmart but you could the fabric of your choice)

  • a box cutter

  • scissors

  • Yes! paste

  • a ruler

I chose a small packing box from a big box store. I taped up the bottom which would become the background of my shadow box box when it is laid on its side. I cut off the folding panels on the top of the box, since they would be unnecessary.

Next, I wanted a background that was both neutral and changeable. For that reason, I opted to line the sides and back with colored paper rather than paint the inside of the box. You can choose any color for your background, but remember that the color you choose will reflect onto your subject. I chose a warm neutral grey.

Photo of paper covered panels cut to fit a DIY shadow box
Three panels to fit sides and back

To make my first background, I cut panels from the sheets of cardboard to fit the

sides and bottom of my box. Then I cut sheets of the pastel paper to fit each cardboard panel. I had two 12"x 14" side panels and a 14"x 14" back panel (to fit the bottom of the box.) Next, I glued the colored paper to each panel with the Yes! paste. My colored paper was a little small for the bottom cardboard panel, so I had to patch some pieces together to make it large enough. I made sure the seams where the papers met was near what would become my top edge of my back panel and would be mostly out of sight when I'm drawing or painting. When the glue was dry, I inserted them in the box in right places.

Photo of panels being placed in a DIY shadow box
Slide paper covered panels into place

Next, I cut a full-width slit in the bottom at the back of my box. I pulled a piece of fabric through the slit and arranged the folds for a nice ground. Again, the flexibility to change out fabrics was essential to me.

Finally, I just charged the clip-on book light and positioned it for the kind of light I wanted. This light has three brightness settings, and I found the middle brightness facing the wall of the box produced the light I wanted. I was able to get a nice highlight, form shadow, and cast shadow as you can see in the photo at the top. That's all there was to it.

Photo of the completed DIY Shadow Box
Final Shadow Box

I think at some point I may want a box that is slightly larger to allow me to light objects larger than will fit in this one, but, for my current purposes, this will work just fine. If you try it, please let me know how it worked for you.

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