The many virtues of value studies

They can help you fix a bad painting or avoid painting one in the first place. They can be inventive, abstract, stress-free and fun.
Value study of my pieris japonica.

I knew I would have a small class the day after the long weekend; I didn’t expect it would be just Roger. It would also have to be indoors because the weather forecast was for cool air and rain.

Private lessons don’t allow time for the student to practice what I’ve taught. Nobody can remember more than a few things at once without applying their new skills. Having an instructor hovering while you’re practicing can be overwhelming. But Roger is a good mid-level painter and this seemed like an opportunity to work one-on-one on value studies with him.
What I’d intended us to do was straight up value studies of an intentionally-boring scene, but we strayed.
I set up a monochromatic still life that I would never really paint: a wooden basket on a wooden tray, with wooden tools and blocks scattered around it. Any interest came from the pattern of shadows and light. We sat down with some umber paint and a handful of small cards and did a few studies of the scene.
Roger asked me what had gone wrong with a plein air painting he’d started in April. That was another day of changeable weather. The eastern sky had glowed pale yellow across Rockport harbor just before it dumped icy rain on us. The odd colors stuck with him.
My interpretation of the painting more or less as Roger painted it.
When a painting is failing, I ask myself some basic questions: Is my composition good? Are my paints fresh? Am I physically uncomfortable? Are my brushes hardened into sticks? Has the subject changed beyond recognition?
I thought Roger had abandoned his initial value drawing, weakening his composition. When that happens, we need to go back and restate the darks. In fact, this is a necessary step in almost every oil painting, but it’s particularly important when you can’t remember what attracted you to the scene in the first place. It helps to have your thumbnail study on hand.
How I thought he could improve the scene.
We didn’t, so I painted a quick copy of what he had on his canvas, and then a suggestion of how I might fix it. I’ve never done a value study after the fact, but it proved helpful. I need to remember that when I’m flailing around at a plein air event.
Meanwhile, the fickle sky had turned a deep cornflower blue. There was nary a hint of the promised rain. There are too many ticks right now to stand in tall grass and paint, so we moved our operation to my patio, and did studies of the light playing on the roof of my shed. That pointed out one of the great values of preliminary studies: they save you from wasting a lot of time on bad ideas. Bleech.
My shed. Boring.
My pieris japonica, on the other hand, is a leggy, ailing shrub that nonetheless looks good against the woods. Our studies of that turned out much better.
Lastly, I showed Roger my favorite game with value studies: making abstractions and then applying real objects to them. This is akin to finding faces in the steam on your shower walls. I create a loose monochrome abstraction that I like, and then mate reality to it. I’ve demonstrated the process here, with the final result here.
An abstraction that could become a figurative painting.
His assignment—and yours too, if you accept it—is to create a monochromatic abstraction and then use it as the basis for a representational painting.