View Full Version : Can colour compensate for a lack of contrasting values in a painting?

the drover's dog
03-16-2010, 11:37 AM
I was wondering if impressive subject matter and colour can overcome the normal pre-requisite of getting the values in balance? Can there be successful exceptions to the value rules?

Have you ever been looking forward to painting something only to find the values in the subject are hopelessly similar all over?

This has just happened to me. I have a photo I took a few weeks ago and, at the time, I just knew I had to try and paint the scene. Downloaded the camera to my laptop and was thrilled with what I could see on a screen that is useless in daylight. (Samsung 'puter - not at all happy with it!).

Came home and looked at the pic on my PC, tweaked a bit, pumped up the contrast and couldn't wait to start on a painting. Then I looked at a greyscale image of the subject and was devastated to find that there is almost no change of value over the whole scene. It was unoticeable in the coloured image because it really is super colourful.

I've been sitting staring at the darn thing all night, wondering how I can overcome the problem and still create a believable version of what is a very well known scene in Australia. This scene is almost a National icon and you don't mess too much with those.

If I darken the stones in the foreground, I doubt it will read as a believable image.


Paula Ford
03-16-2010, 12:57 PM
Beautiful photo!!

Here is what I'd do... I'd crop off the photo as follows (that way, the darkness of the bushes in front would create some darker values instead of the rocks) and just lighten up the distant mountains a little bit. The composition is just beautiful. Have fun painting this gorgeous scene! May I suggest doing lots of thumbnail sketches and a small color study long before starting the painting, to work out all the issues.


03-16-2010, 01:56 PM
I suggest you read through the thread "Saturation vs. Value" completely. Then read it again!!! It discusses this very question and uses Monet and Renoir (and others) to show how a painting that is very close in values can be incredibly beautiful by using saturated colors. Seriously - it is a very difficult concept, and I need to re-read the entire thread again and again myself, but as I look at your photo especially in grayscale, I think you could gain valuable information from this other thread.


03-16-2010, 03:16 PM
I Think the above replies are excellent and I would add this, color can take on a more important role in this particular instance juxtaposing higher chroma and lower chroma to indicate distance along with subtle value shifts etc., but I see a big opportunity to play cooler color against warmer color within the close value range.In my opinion this is where the beauty of the scene lies.Remember your bringing the piece from photo world to paint world so do what you have to to make it successfull, it's your interpretation so if you need to crop or lighten the value a little on the back mountains (like Paula said) to support the idea go for it.Cooler against warmer within a close value range, subtle chroma shifts mixed with lots of variation (cooler blues,violets and greens,warmer blues,violets and greens against warmer colors and their cooler versions) and no one will care about a missing dramatic value range.Thats a beautiful scene, it's gonna make a great painting.Remember this is just my opinion I'm sure you'll get lots of ideas.Joe.

03-16-2010, 03:50 PM
In addition to color or even value, I think adjusting the focus would be helpful. Keep it sharp up front and let the sky drag into the mountains in the distance a bit, softening them.

I would assume there are clouds in Australia! Perhaps adding some would help, too. It is a beautiful scene.

03-16-2010, 05:27 PM
Looking at it, I think that compared to looking at the scene in life, the sky may be a bit darker than true. Just a thought. Everyone's suggestions do make sense and I think it could be fantastic just as it is, as long as you mute and cool everything in the background and give it less focus, then get your strongest contrasts in front including hue contrasts.

It's a gorgeous scene and yep, this is a good example of one that color takes the lead in distinguishing distance and objects!

Charlie did an example in another discussion where she painted a cube entirely in colors of the same value, you couldn't even see what it was in grayscale and it popped out immediately in color. That's so extreme compared to this that you should have no trouble adapting this reference.

03-16-2010, 08:38 PM
I think your B&W photo is very revealing in that it shows most impressively that it is not value contrast that make this an impressive photo and would make a beautiful painting! So the B&W photo most definitely answers your question.

Of course, as the artist, you can create greater value contrast where you see fit, but the difference in color saturation and color temperature clearly replace value as the major elements that separate foreground from distance in this photo.

Here is a link to the Saturation vs. Value thread that was mentioned earlier:


One thing I think you will find from that thread, as well as the answers that you have received here, is that contrast may be the most important element, rather than value. In many cases, that primary contrast is one of value, but the more I learn, the more it is apparent that there are more ways than one to solve pictorial challenges. So yes, sometimes contrasts in color saturation can take on the primary role rather than values, sometimes it is the contrast of cool and warm colors, sometimes a contrast of focus (hard vs. soft edges). In all likelihood, you will use multiple methods of contrast in every painting.


03-16-2010, 09:28 PM
Yes, color contrast can substitute for value contrast if done carefully. A high-key painting- or one done with little value 'lower' than a medium (meaning no real darks, at all) can work very successfully, as can a low-key painting (Larry over in still life does these beautifully, very few small areas lighter than a medium light- and they just *sing* out of those darks).

You need to be careful with whatever highest value-contrast placement you have. Try and make sure that what value contrast there is ends up in a sweet spot- make it a center of interest. As for the colour portion...

You can create wonderful harmony from this scene by incorporating those beautiful purples in the far mountains as the shadow colours of the rocks in the foreground, and use the reds in the fore- just a smidge darker than the 'local colour'- to shadow your green-growth things- it will give them wonderful depth.

Most people 'see' in value despite colour, but the very fact you didn't notice the relatively narrow value range until you placed it in grayscale demonstrates you see more in colour than in value. S'okay- means you're in a select company- and now you'll have a challenge to pull off that will teach you a lot, and solidify your talents.

the drover's dog
03-17-2010, 07:15 AM
Thanks everyone. No time to digest your wonderful words of wisdom as we have house guests for a few days. Too tired to think right now. Will be back with correct thanks and questions as soon as I can.



the drover's dog
04-11-2010, 01:12 AM
Well, I've had 3 1/2 weeks to digest all those wonderful words of wisdom. Thanks everyone. I've followed the other thread about "Saturation versus Value" too. Haven't had much time as we have had house guests for all of those 3 1/2 weeks, and I've thrown a large party for my DH's Birthday. I seem to have been chained to the kitchen for the past month.

At last they have gone home so I leapt into painting this. The colour is a bit off. The rusty ground looks way too red and the darks are reading way darker than they are. Not finished yet. Still have to put in the detail on the foreground, both the hummocky looking spinifex plants and stones, and attend to shadows and highlights. The Yakka plant on the right is driving me nuts. :mad: I can't seem to bring it forward. Tried putting it on a stem to add contrast, but it's not working. I've brushed it off twice already. I just don't have the colours to do the dead fringe of leaves and make them look convincing. This is the latest effort where I was trying for not quite such a dead look. It obviously is going to have to go the way of the two previous efforts.

Anyway, here it is so far. Please, I really need some help here. I'm getting very close to putting it under the tap. Maybe I'm trying to fly above my skill level? I've loathed everything I've painted since I picked up my brush/pastels after the three year hiatis away from art. My concentration is really poor right now as my DH is very ill. Painting helps me cope a little better while I'm actually doing it, but the disatisfaction with my work is soul destroying. I'm still finding the pastels a difficult medium, but I love using them. It's a catch 22.

Wilpena Pound from Huck's Lookout in the Flinder's Ranges of South Australia.

44cm x 32cm. on Colourfix Paper.



04-11-2010, 11:18 AM
If you try some dark purple-blue in your foreground shadows, it will *pop* those green plants up and out. You've managed terrific distance in this- now you need to make that fore stand out.

04-11-2010, 12:03 PM

Don't get discouraged! You have done a nice job on this! You have achieved a great deal of depth in this painting!

Since your thread is about color and/or value, possible value based solutions might be to add more contrast in the foreground - either adding more darks, or more lights (or both). Putting color into the equation - since warm colors come forward and cool colors recede - you could add more warm colors to the foreground bushes. Since color saturation or intensity is also part of the equation, you could make sure some of those colors are more intense. I hope you don't mind, I put it into photoshop to experiment.

First adding only more intense lights:


Then adding darker browns into the bottom of the plants (warm color reflecting off the red ground):

Now, my suggestions might be exaggerated and look a little crude - and I am using both value and color modifications together - so your possible solution might be more subtle. And this is only my opinion and other's suggestions might be better! So feel free to ignore any and all my comments!

But I hope it helps and gives you some ideas!


the drover's dog
04-11-2010, 01:24 PM
Just a quick acknowledgement as it's past bedtime and I've had a harrowing night dashing off after an ambulance carrying my DH to hospital which is over 50 kms away and then driving home again.

Sweet B, many thanks for the encouragement and suggesting the purple shadows. I thought I still had them in there but see they went west in the last frantic brushing off of the painting. I had used dark purple for the shadows but it was a cool, dark, bluish purple. Perhaps I'd be better off with a purple on the red side of the spectrum if I can find one in my pastel box. You can see one little bit of the cool purple still, on the left hand side. I've found a bristle stencil brush is very effective at removing large areas of pastel from Colourfix. :D

Don, I'm so grateful for your efforts with PS. It looks much better with the warmer tones as highlights. I've been so hung up on this scene originally not having contrasting values, that I was afraid to dilute the colour contrasts of the greens with neighbouring warm tones. That is why I'd initially used navy blue to anchor the plants to the ground as I'd underpainted them with that colour to start with to try and punch the colour contrast and perhaps sneak a bit more value contrast in there also. Wasn't happy with this. Then I went over those bases with a cool dark brown and it still didn't look right, so I went over that again with the dark navy again to tie in the blue purple sun shadows I'd planned on using. Now I can see that the brown I was using was too dark and too cool. Your effort looks so much better.

I have reached the stage in some spots that the tooth just will not hold any more pastel. Might have to brush back a few more areas and use a lighter hand when building up the colours. If hands were feet, mine would be wearing hob-nailed boots!

At least now I'm looking forward to tackling this again. Hopefully sometime tomorrow.



04-11-2010, 04:31 PM
Dale, may all go well with your husband and may he recover completely.

You got a *very* nice depth in the picture by your colour choices. Even if you have to re-do it, those colours *work*, and you'll get them down straight.


the drover's dog
04-12-2010, 11:36 PM
Thanks for the kind wishes and the encouragement Charlie.

We are hoping for a miracle with my Husband's health. His outlook is very grim. It's a matter of keeping him as confortable as possible.

Haven't had time to fiddle with the painting and the next few days will be spent in our capital city 300 kms from home whilst we obtain a second medical opinion, so it's today or much later if I'm to work on this painting.



04-13-2010, 01:15 AM
Dear Dale - I'm so sorry you are having so many troubles with your husband's health - that is SO stressful. Sometimes it is very hard to paint when you are under such stress. Even so, you have a wonderful start to your painting here, and I'm sure you will resolve it in time. Just don't be so hard on yourself, o.k.?


04-13-2010, 06:51 AM
Oh, Dale, that is so hard. It is good to keep up some of one's own activities, those that give you energy and peace. In order to take care of a loved one, and be strong, one needs it.


Paula Ford
04-13-2010, 09:16 AM
Dale, I'm so sorry to hear about your husband's health. Sending you good thoughts and prayers.

the drover's dog
04-13-2010, 11:10 AM
Thanks Lynn, Charlie and Paula for the support and kind understanding. I'm not coping with sympathy very well right now. Kindness cracks the tough veneer I'm functioning under and makes me all weepy and I try to hide all that from DH and stay cheerful. He's so brave and philosophical about it all. Thanks heavens he's in bed right now and can't see me blowing my nose!

Grateful hugs to you all.


04-13-2010, 02:19 PM
:wave: HI, Dale,

I am so sorry to hear about your DH's health problems and all concerned.
Sending good thoughts and prayers!:heart:

I have been reading a marvelous book by Julie Gilbert Pollard, "Brilliant Color", published by Northlight.
While it is about oil and acrylics, the author goes into values and color etc. in a way that I'm finding very helpful in pastels. She really makes clear the color/value relationship better than any other author I've encountered.


the drover's dog
04-15-2010, 10:06 AM
Thanks Elsie. We need prayers. Second medical opinion in the city today was as bad as it gets. DH is very tired this evening after the 8 hour round trip.

Thanks also for the book reference. I looked at that book a month or so ago and nearly bought it but the postage to Australia is a bit scarey from the publisher. Amazon's postage rates are better. I think I might buy it but I need to decide on another to purchase with it to make the freight a bargain, and I can't make up my mind which other single book I need the most. My wish list contains about 20. :wink2:

Bought a few more pastel sticks yesterday and now have the colours to finish this Flinder's Ranges beastie. Just need to re-ignite the motivation.

DH wants me to attend a two day workshop our art society is holding on 24-25 of this month. Artist is Herman Pekel. You'll find him via Google if you want to take a peek at his work. It's a bit daunting as this chap is so-o-o good and it will be such a radical departure from anything I've tried to do before. Could be quite liberating or a total disaster. Even if I do stuff up, it should be interesting.

Grateful hugs,