The value of value

Cypresses and Sunlight, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087 includes shipping in continental US.

Early this year, I set out to create a seven-step online training class to teaching the fundamentals of oil painting. This morning I’m releasing Step 2: the Value Drawing. Making these interactive classes is a tremendous learning experience for me, and I hope the net result is helpful for you, too.

Value (lightness to darkness) is just one component of color, but it’s the most important. Establishing a hierarchy of values before you ever pick up a brush will save you hours of flailing around in the field. I know this from personal experience. Before I became disciplined about value, I wasted tons of time (and much paint) dithering, repainting, and generally making a mess of more paintings than I saved.

The value sketch is the oil painter’s secret weapon. It’s an opportunity to plan your painting before you ever pick up a brush. And it’s critical; if the value structure is compelling, your painting will be compelling. If not, your painting is doomed from the start. Nothing in painting is more important than value.

Birches, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US.

Value is the basis of good composition

“But why waste time on a sketch when I can just paint?” you ask. For the same reason that contractors need blueprints before they start building: great ideas require planning.

Investigating value in advance is the key to compositional fluency. In value sketches, we quickly experiment with different arrangements of lights and darks. This helps us make intelligent choices about focal points, line, and the weight of individual elements in the painting.

By breaking complex scenes down into restricted value planes, we create blueprints for our paintings. This not only helps us simplify ideas, it guides us through later decisions about color, texture, and detail.

Value sketching starts with just a few simple, inexpensive tools: a sketchbook and a mechanical pencil. Working in a sketchbook is a lot faster and easier than working out questions of light and dark in paint. In return for a small investment of time at the beginning of your painting, you’ll reap tremendous dividends as you go forward.

Dropping Tide, 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, $1087 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Amplifying contrast

Value drawing helps us simplify and amplify (when necessary) the contrast between darks and lights in our composition. Contrast is the visual tool that creates interest and drama in a painting. Too many paintings fail because they’re stuck in the boring midtones.

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Understanding Form

Value drawing helps us understand how light interacts with different forms and objects in a composition. It’s what gives objects volume. You may never paint the nuances of three-dimensional modeling, but you should understand them.

Value is particularly important in realism. It’s how we create convincing illusions of light and shadow, depth and dimensionality.

Who is this course designed for?

It’s comprehensive, so it’s tailored to both a beginner’s understanding and an experienced artist’s continued development. You can go back to it repeatedly and take it at your own speed, so you’ll benefit from it no matter what your starting point.

Step 1: the Perfect Palette

Step 2: the Value Drawing

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: start with value

Lobster pound, 12X16, oil on canvas, available.
Lobster pound, 12X16, oil on canvas, available.

There’s an old saw that goes, “value does all the work and color gets all the credit.” I tend to not repeat it because value is just one aspect of color. It’s like saying ‘my arm hit that ball and my body gets all the credit.’ Nevertheless, it points out an essential truth.

A review, for those of you who are new to color science:

Value – How light or dark is the pigment?

Hue – Where does the color sit on the color wheel? All colors fall into one of the following hue families: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Within those families, however, are many subdivisions.

Chroma – How much intensity, or “punch” does the color have?

Spring Greens, 9X12, available.

Value is the key player in our first reading of a painting. It drives our perception and guides us through the painting. When we understand this, we can substitute any hue in a painting—even unreal, high-intensity colors—as long as they’re the proper value.

The inverse is also sadly true. “I substitute off-value color and chroma for accurate value. Then, except for a couple spots of high-chroma yellow, I wonder why my paintings are flat,” a student told me. He took that observation and ran with it, painting only in greyscale for months.

That might be a little extreme, but preparatory work in value is important. If you've never tried value sketching before, start with this set of grey markers and a simple Strathmore Visual Journal (in Bristol finish). Practice simplifying complex scenes into simple value structures.

There are various ways to sharpen our focus on value: notans, value sketches, and grisaille underpaintings being the most popular. However we get there, the first step of a good painting is to see each composition in terms of its value structure.

The same is true in watercolor, of course. Untitled class demo.

Alla prima painting requires great skill in color mixing, because the goal is to nail it on the first strike. That goes not just the for darks, but every color in the picture. Even a painting with wonderful shadows and lights will have many middle tones, often closely related in value. These are actually the most difficult colors to mix accurately. If you have a painting that isn’t working, ask yourself if it has a full tonal range, or is it simply hitting the highs and lows. For example, when people get in trouble painting texture, it’s usually because they’re overstating the contrast.

All color is relative, meaning it depends on its neighbors. That’s particularly true when it comes to value. Below see a plate from Joseph Albers’ groundbreaking Interaction of Color. The inner violets are the exact same value. But the framing color influences how we see those values, so one looks much lighter than the other.

Plate IV-4 from Joseph Albers' Interaction of Color, demonstrating how all color is relative. The inner violet colors are the same exact value, but what surrounds them influences how we perceive them

There are three things to remember:

Value judgments are subjective. There’s no reliable way to measure the value of a color. The camera is as subjective as the human eye.

You can’t get a color to go darker than its ‘natural’ value without distorting the hue or chroma. Thus, there is no natural dark version of cadmium yellow, so the shadows in a yellow object require a workaround.

All pigments can make about the same number of discrete steps. While the yellows have a shorter range, the steps are more noticeable. Blues can mix from almost-white to almost-black, but the middle points are very similar.

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