Did you know Winsor and Newton publishes a series of mini painting-tip videos? (You can subscribe to W&N here.) This week’s tip (watch it here) is about same-value color fields to create depth, add interest, and suggest atmosphere in broad passages where you might otherwise use a single, flat color. Very useful, I think. Do you already do this in your work?
What is Value?
Value is a challenging concept for many new artists. The directive to “squint” to find them, looking back and forth to compare source material and the painting in process can be frustrating if you don’t know what you’re looking for. When I first started painting, I had trouble with values too, so I used tools to help get my brain wrapped around the idea.
Tonal values are critical. The lights and darks contribute more to the success of a painting’s composition than any other factor, including color. In fact your painting will really only be as good as the tonal values.
Greg Albert The Simple Secret to Better Painting
Value in painting refers to luminance – the lightness and darkness of a color, without any consideration for its hue (color). In a black to white gradient scale (below), we can see – clearly – which square of color is lighter or darker than the other. The challenge for many artists is to identify this value scale in color. And then, to apply that “visual filter” to the source image for the painting, and the colors being mixed on the palette, and the results when pigments are applied next to other colors on the painting. It’s a tall order if you’re new to the concept.
Painters say color gets all the credit but value does all the work. Painting with color-alone, without regard for value seems more accessible, and beginning painters reach for that fruit from the lower branches on the tree, which is totally okay if that’s what floats your boat in your art-making. If you’d like the option of rendering accurate values, a few adjustments can have a profound impact on the readability, the believability and the appeal of your art.
So, What’s with the Squinting?
Seasoned artists squint to see value (and shape). By squinting, you’re looking at your source material through eyelashes, and a smaller “view-finder” simulated by partially closing your lids. Try it. You’ll find, with a little practice, that squinting does several things:
- the tiny details and edges get blurred together & broad, textural passages flatten out
- colors soften and become less pronounced in the scene
- edges get lost making bigger shapes more visible
It’s easy to get sidetracked by documenting every leaf, and vein and palm frond if you painted the scene above. The middle panel – even though it’s blurred – keeps the integrity of the composition and the color information suitable for a painting reference. You know exactly what you’re looking at. Your brain fills in the details for you. #smartbrain That’s what you gain with squinting; simplify shapes, softening colors and showing values. Get those foundations in order first, and then, if you want to paint every little bump on a branch, go for it, because you’ll have a solid underpainting of values shimmering beneath your details.
The last panel above has all color removed, which shows the values clearly. Try squinting at these images, and look for lights and darks in all three of the photos. Can you see the lightest lights (the tips & reflections on the red leaves in the foreground plants), and the darkest darks (the palm tree in the upper right corner, the trees next to it, and the stems of the red plants) in the color version as well as the black and white? Is it easier to find the darkest darks in the blurry version, or the sharp version of the photo?
The Value of Values
Values create a focal point, because the human eye is attracted to lights and darks side by side. Areas in your art that have lightest points next to darkest points attract the eye to those transitions in your composition. You can move the viewer’s eye strategically through a painting by mapping where you place the boundaries between bright lights and saturated darks. Once the eye lands on those pin-points, value invites the viewer to roam through the rest of the painting.
Trick the Eye
You can also create the illusion of depth by graduating values from light to dark. Transitions between light and dark give the illusion of three dimensional form when painting still life or the figure. When painting curved objects, it’s effective to lay in values that shift very, very gradually.
Values in painting are also affected by the environment they’re nestled into. Colors can look brighter or darker depending on values immediately around them. If you get the value right on your palette, you’ll benefit from squinting to check them frequently after you lay them into your painting, because those brush strokes will be affected by their neighboring colors and values.
Value vs Contrast
Value often gets confused with contrast. Value is the amount of light and dark within a placed swatch of color. Contrast describes the boundary between those colors. Your camera will reveal how contrast affects visibility. If a sunlit object is shown against a bright, sunlit sky, your camera may not discern enough contrast to collect details of the image, because the boundaries aren’t visible.
Tools to help with Value
Artists trying to learn values can get a helping hand by snapping a photo of the scene with a phone, and changing the image to black and white. An app I use is – Accuview ($1.99). It will change your image to black and white, and overlay a grid on the scene to help with drawing and placement on your canvas or paper.
Red or green acetate filters help painters identify relative values. If you look through a red colored filter at a scene, everything – trees, lawns, buildings – will be seen as different shades of red. If you don’t want a packaged value finder, you can also purchase a sheet of red acetate from Amazon, like this one, [affiliate] but the price is about the same for either option.
It Takes Time
These tools are all great for helping us understand lights and darks and midtones in values, and I recommend them if you’re struggling with the concept. I found that using filters really helped me grasp the concept of values, and I eventually learned how to squint every few minutes or so while working to get my paintings closer to my goals. If I still get suck, I snap a shot of the painting in process, and transfer it to black and white, and compare that to a black and white image of my source material. There’s no harm in checking, so if you’re in doubt, do that.
Art is one of the few places where nothing bad will happen to you if you take chances. You’re just manipulating pigments on paper or canvas with a hairy-tipped stick. Take lots of chances and stretch your art muscles. Really good art takes a really long time. Be patient with yourself, and fire your inner critic before you ever pick up a brush. Just make sure you do the work. We don’t get better by thinking about it, looking at it, studying how other artists do it. Practice.
Seeing with an artist’s eye is an acquired skill, in every way – and it demands practiced application, like everything else we want to master. My grandfather used to say Ambition beats Talent, Hands Down. Muster your ambition, because we all have that, and practice looking for values all around you while you’re sipping coffee or waiting in line at the grocery store. And keep in mind that everyone learns differently. If this post doesn’t make sense to you, try to google ‘What is value in artist colors’, and look at other descriptions, like this one.
Well now, THAT was a lot to think about! If you’re new to values, I hope I didn’t overwhelm you. If you have *any* questions, please type them into the comments. There’s a wide, deep swath of artists on the trail, reading the comments here & there, and they’d be so happy to reach a hand back to help you move forward. Because we’ve all had to start at the beginning.
Have courage. You’ve got this.
I’ll see you in the next post –
P.S. You can subscribe to get these missives via email (free) by signing up here.
P.P.S. My friend Abbey Ryan is launching a new session of her Innernet course online. It’s an opportunity to unplug from the internet, focus inward, and spend a set amount of time, offline and painting. You can read more about it here.
Building a career is like knitting a tapestry. It’s small thread by small thread. It takes years. It becomes beautiful. And it’s something you can fall into when it’s done for comfort and security.
That tapestry becomes your network. A career is not what you created today, but the networks you built up today that will create unexpected opportunities for you ten, fifteen, twenty years later.