Saturday, July 12, 2014

Why values are important

     “Value does all the work and color gets all the glory.” – Unknown

There will be nothing new or revolutionary contained herein. Many of us know or are aware of many of the following points which have been explored by thousands of others before us. So, let’s look at this maybe as a little refresher. 

In keeping things simple and primarily in the realm of watercolors, hopefully we can explore some ideas and concepts pertaining to values which can help us with our practice and our paintings. 

So, what is value? Simply, it is the lightness or the darkness of a color. If you’d like to get more complex with this you could I suppose, but there is no reason here. I suppose the word “tone” could be interchanged here, but let’s stick to “value.”

To illustrate this, there are value scales. There are many value scales out there, and you can even create your own. Here is one for example:

This one happens to be numbered for our convenience. Personally I find a numbered scale a wee bit confusing. That’s because when I read or see an instructor telling us to “paint down to lower values”, he is speaking generally to “get darker”. But when I hear “lower”, I start thinking about a number, not a darker value. A low number to me is a 2, which happens to have a high value. Just a quirk of mine I suppose. I just assume leave numbers out of it. Therefore, dropping your color down the value scale means to “get darker”, not go down numerically to a high light value.

The concept of a value scale is easy enough to understand, gradually and incrementally getting a little bit darker and darker with each step. However, incorporating or remembering to incorporate values into your work or practice, especially if just beginning, well that takes a bit of practice.

When first beginning, it is important to understand that all colors have a value, and just because you change color does not necessarily mean you have changed value. This may be a tough thing to work through at first, but you’ll soon catch on with enough practice.

It's impossible to make a picture without values. Values are the basis. If they are not, tell me what is the basis. - William Morris Hunt

 The best way to show depth is to have variation in values. The best way to learn this is to paint without color.-Tom Lynch

So why values? Well without them, you’ll never get any depth or form….or any interest! Really, without values you won’t get much of anything, which includes a successful painting. So, it’s probably safe to say that values in your paintings are the biggest and most important compositional or design element in your painting – period.

One of the best ways to help further the appreciation of values (or at least the appreciation that you should have) and their importance, is to practice value drawing, or sketching and monochromatic painting. By learning how to paint in one color, you can achieve a better understanding of just how important values are and the impact they have.

Having discovered, seen and read of the importance of values from so many books and videos, I often wonder why it is often buried in the middle chapters. Maybe so many are so eager to jump right in with the mechanics like how to color mix or how to do a flat wash, that this important topic is treated with less enthusiasm.

I’ve thought that if I would ever teach a workshop or had a student, I would never get any business. My first month’s lesson plan would simply read “monochromatic studies” and the supplies list would be some paper, your favorite brush and one tube of black pigment. Play with color on your own time!

It very well may be a failed business venture, but I’d stick to it anyway. The benefits to students would be immense, although it would be a hard sell to the new and aspiring artists. You could learn a lot of basic things, (though it would not be immediately evident to the student), but also one of the most important things as well – values. Truly, if I could be a beginner all over again, as I often tell myself, I am anyway, values is where I would want to start, hands down. Why didn’t anyone tell me when I started?

Value and its study are not flashy or colorful, and not many heed the importance of it through monochromatic practice. That is a shame really. Can you imagine being a beginner, opening a book, and the author’s strict first instruction in Chapter One tells you to do nothing but monochromatic value studies for a month? Your fingers couldn’t move fast enough to get to Chapter 2. Or return it for a full refund.

 But what is often lost on us and what we must try to remind ourselves of is that in order to paint that wonderful looking landscape, or that beautifully lit still life in Chapter 2, you couldn’t really get there without Chapter One - Values.

“Color is an inborn gift, but appreciation of value is merely training of the eye, which everyone ought to be able to acquire.” - John Singer Sargent 

Read values relatively. Find the lightest light and compare all other light values to it. Do the same with the darks. -Irwin Greenberg

The best part about being an artist is that you don't have to copy the values found in your subject. Your job is to... decide how you can go beyond the references to alter or enhance the values. -Tom Lynch

We won’t get into value design, planning and placement here so much, but suffice it to say that if we simplify things greatly, we should spread our value shapes around like Ed Whitney used to teach- like papa, mama and baby bear. We want to make it interesting for the viewer.

Training your eyes to see value is best perhaps done through the study of black and white photos or converting color photos to gray scale. Personally, I find it easier this way as color can confuse me. Make no mistake, like anything else practice is needed. There are thousands of subtleties in value within any one picture or photo but it’s easier to see these if you first learn or train you’re your eyes to simplify.

How? Learn to know what to look for. One helpful way could be to first identify the lightest light shapes, which are highest on the value scale. Then perhaps identify the darkest dark shapes, lowest on the value scale. It’s a good way to begin. All else will be mid tones or mid value shapes from light to dark.

It should be clear here that we try not to look at objects – a mountain, a leaf, a vase, a shadow pattern within a wine glass- but shapes. Maybe when trying to identify these light, mid and dark values, it would be beneficial to turn whatever you are looking at upside down. Worth a try.

Once these are identified, the lightest values will be the white of paper, and darks, well as dark as you can get your darkest pigment to flow. 

Both the challenge and “life” of your painting will be in the remaining mid values. This is where a painting really can come alive. 

As explained by watercolorist Don Andrews (see previous blog about one of his books, values can be likened to that of a musician. The really high and really low notes are used for punch or emphasis, but the majority of the song is carried somewhere in the middle range. You can see how this may apply to painting.

Designing your painting for impact has to include value- there is no way around it, which can bring us to different types of value paintings: full range, high key and low key.

For a strong composition, you want the values to be in quite different amounts, not similar. Try this rule to start: two thirds, one third, and a little bit. -Marion Boddy-Evans

Establishing the two most extreme values as soon as possible helps me take note of all other values that will fall somewhere between them.- Kenn Backhaus

Basically, a full range painting is just that, a painting that makes use of values ranging from 1 to 9, if we use the scale shown earlier. By using the white and the black values for accent “notes” or emphasis, in other words, minimally, this may support and help the painting have a little excitement. However of course, there are no right or wrong “formulas”. This full range is what may be considered a balanced way of painting.

On the light extreme side of things, high key paintings may be paintings where the darkest value is no higher than a mid value 5 on our scale for example, making use of only values ranging in the 0-5 area. High key paintings are just fine, and may appear to be light and airy, but they may also run the risk of coming off as a bit “washed out”, incomplete or directionless.

On the other side of the scale, the dark side, the low key painting may have the lightest value at a mid value 5 for example, making little use of the higher values. Low key (dark) paintings may read as moody, dramatic or sullen.

There is nothing wrong with any of these, just be aware maybe where your range is and do a bit more exploring in the other direction. 

Where ever your watercolor studies and practice take you, do yourself a rather huge favor and include value study on a routine basis. Practice looking for it, identifying it and trying to paint it, especially monochromatically. With all the countless other elements to concern ourselves with in painting, whether it be color, techniques, design, unity, balance, or whatever else, value is the ticket, for without it, none of the other stuff really matters.
Neal (nmserie on AT)

1 comment:

  1. Neal, you have posted a very valuable lesson on values. (no pun intended.) You have pointed out all the necessary elements of a great painting. Thank you for your post. While I am a complete fail at watercolor, value is something that is important to any medium used... barbara b


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