Put shades, shadows and outlines to work

By SignCraft.com

Posted on Friday, February 18th, 2022

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Back in sign painting days, the most common way to add some appeal to lettering was to add a shade or shadow. Customers always liked it and when well done, it added a sense of dimension that caught the viewer’s eye, too. Another common effect was to use an outline to increase the readability or power of a line of lettering.

That’s still true today. In the right color and used appropriately, a shade, shadow or outline can add a lot to a sign layout. And just as in sign painting days, these effects are still misused or used in such a way that they decrease the sign’s effectiveness. They’re not a replacement for good layout. They have to be used with care, as part of the layout—not as an afterthought when “something’s missing.”

Here’s an assortment of photos from our files that show a few of the possibilities for using shades, shadows and outlines. As you look over them, you may want to take note of the size and colors of the shades and outlines—and at how the letters are spaced. All are key factors in using these effects successfully.

Lane Walker, Solo Signs, Reno, Nevada

“Transmissions” got a lighter highlight as well as a shade. Jeff Zeller, Shasta Lake, California

The outline is often a good place to introduce a new color to add interest. The stippled border is done using the process Mike described in “Stipple on an antique background,” in the January/February 2004 issue of SignCraft. Mike Meyer, Meyer Signs, Mazeppa, Minnesota

Outline, convex outline, in-shade, shadow—this door has them all. Bert Quimby, Bert Graphix, Pompton Lakes, New Jersey

Outlines work on dimensional signs, too. Dave Beatty, Dave Beatty Sign Artist, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada

Spacing an outline away from the letter lets the background color show through as an outline, too. David Showalter, David Design, Bryan, Ohio

Here a simple outline makes the company name more readable. Russ Mills, Artcraft Signs & Designs, Pineville, Kentucky

A convex outline adds dimension. Rob Cooper, Koh Tao, Thailand

A single shadow on the 1.3 Acres panel helps pull it forward. Raymond Chapman, Chapman Sign Studio, Temple, Texas

Rob Cooper, Koh Tao, Thailand

Who says outlines can’t be ragged? Kurt Schlaefer, Signs by Kurt, Tucson, Arizona

Outlines and an in-shade make the main copy look 3-D. Mike Meyer, Meyer Signs, Mazeppa, Minnesota

White outlines make this purple lettering more visible on the black background. Bert Quimby, Bert Graphix, Pompton Lakes, New Jersey

Outline with an in-shade. Marvin Renter, MR Signs, Inc., Norfolk, Nebraska

Ragged outlines and a highlight loosen up this lettering. Marvin Renter, MR Signs, Inc., Norfolk, Nebraska

Outline with a drop shade. Todd Hanson, Hanson Graphix, Wauseon, Ohio

This bold outline makes the company name a unit. Tom Kelly, Lettermen Signage, Inc., Mokena, Illinois

A strong color for the shade works here thanks to the wide space between it and the letter. Russ Mills, Russ Mills Signs, Pineville, Kentucky

Double outlines and an in-shade add dimension on this door by Jeff Devey, Jeff’s Graphics, Twin Falls, ID

Airbrushing a shadow gives a realistic effect. Bobbo Dunn, Bobbo’s Arts & Letters, Albuquerque, New Mexico

The strong contrasts of the outlines and shade create a dynamic look. John Deaton [Deaton Design, Ages-Brookside, KY]