Welcome to the first meeting of our new Watercolor classroom. Hopefully these monthly meetings will become symposiums where the leader will introduce the topic for the month, then we can all discuss it, ask questions, get explanations and answers from others, and share our experiences and knowledge about the topic. Finally, we can apply what we’ve learned in a painting and show the results to the rest of the class in a special “Homework” thread in the Watercolor Gallery.
With that in mind, let’s put all our computers in a giant circle and begin our adventure, learning about values in paintings this month.
also called Tonal Values
, are simply the lights, darks, and midtones in a painting. However, their importance to the success of a painting can’t be stressed enough. They are one of the most important elements in a successful work of art.
Using a full range of values serves a number of functions in a painting:
- they indicate the direction of the light and shadows in the composition;
- they add dimension to the forms and shapes in the scene;
- they can lead the eye in a planned path throughout the painting;
- they emphasize and develop the center of interest or focal point;
- they create the illusion of distance and depth; and
- they help to establish a mood or emotion in the picture.
If you’ve been baffled by values or struggled to make them work in your paintings, there are some tried-and-true techniques and even special “tools” that you can use to help you achieve your values goals. Here are a few to try out:
Grayscale Your Reference
Printing, scanning, or photocopying your reference in grayscale is a quick way to eliminate the distraction of color so that you can see the lights and darks in the scene more easily .
Narrowing your eyes to a squint when you look at your reference enables you toconcentrate on the major shapes and value masses in the scene by blurring out the details.
Value Sketches or Thumbnails
This is the primary tool for achieving the best range of values—they are recommended in almost every watercolor book or article I read while researching this topic.
Noted watercolorist Ron Ransom was quite emphatic about their worth:
It makes complete sense to produce a black and white sketch to work out the tonal values of your painting…This sketch is of tremendous importance because it is the complete guide to your finished work…A really good tonal value sketch can fill you with excitement and a real desire to paint in color, the scene you produced in black and white.
Taking the time to make two, three, or more value sketches when you begin a painting, enables you to determine the most interesting placement for your lights, darks, and midtones, decide which value key to use for conveying the emotion or mood you want in your painting, and manipulate the value contrasts to highlight your center of interest and lead the eye through the piece to it.
Deciding on the most pleasing distribution of values at this stage in the painting process will save you a lot of “fiddling” and possible overworking of the painting later. Don’t worry about color,textures and details at this time, they come to the fore once you have established your value scheme.
Developing Value Sketches
Value sketches do not have to be elaborate. Follow these easy steps:
- Mix a light, medium, and dark wash of a neutral color such as Payne’s gray or Neutral Tint on your palette.
- Draw several 4” x 6”/10 cm x 15.5 cm rectangles on a piece of watercolor paper. I found this to be the easiest size to work with when I made mine. You can make yours larger or smaller, whatever you find most comfortable.
- Make a grayscale copy of your reference photo and squint your eyes while looking at it (or at the scene if painting en plein aire). This will help you to simplify the shapes and identify the values of the main masses you see.
- With a pencil, draw only the outlines of the main shapes in your rectangles, interlocking their edges like a jigsaw puzzle, creating both positive and negative shapes.
- Mark your lightest values with a small “X” and leave those shapes the white of the paper. Use the other tones of gray to color in the rest of the values you see in your photo or scene. When this has dried, you can paint the subtle variations of tone within each value area.
- You can also try out various value sequences of light, medium, and dark in your thumbnails—for example, light foreground, medium middle ground, dark background; or dark fg, light mg, medium bg; or medium fg, dark mg, light bg—until you find the one you think works best with your overall composition. These value sequences can be used horizontally—usually good with panoramas or landscapes, or vertically—good with buildings or flowers.
When using photos as a reference, bear in mind that the values you see in the photo may not be accurate and may appear darker than they would in real life. You can make adjustments to these values when doing your thumbnail sketches. Don’t be afraid to simplify and adjust elements and values in the photograph—YOU are the artist, the camera is only a camera.
A Value Scale is an easy-to-make, effective tool for determining the values in a scene and for planning the full range of values you might want to use in your painting. It is also helpful for checking your finished painting when doing a final adjustment to its values. To make a Value Scale:
- Draw a 1.25” x 7”/3.5cm x 18cm rectangle on a piece of 140 lb. coldpress/NOT watercolor paper. Divide it into 7 equal 1”/2.5 cm rectangles.
- Mix a light value wash of a neutral color (Payne’s Gray or Neutral Tint).
Leave the first space on the left unpainted; the white of the paper is your lightest value.
- Fill in all the rectangles, except the first one on the left, with a pale tint of your paint, just a little lighter than the white of the paper that is in your first rectangle. Dry completely (using a hair dryer speeds this considerably).
- Add some paint to the wash so it is a shade darker than the first one. Paint a wash over all the rectangles starting with the third one. Dry.
- Repeat the process with the rest of the spaces making them gradually darker with each wash. Each rectangle should be discernibly darker than the previous one, finishing with black or as close to black as you can get.
- Punch a hole in the bottom section of each rectangle with a paper punch.
To use the Value Scale, place it on top of your reference photo (or look through it if painting on location). Move it around until you find the rectangle that most closely matches in tonal value one of the areas in your scene. This helps you determine the level of values needed for each section of the painting. You can also use the Value Scale with your finished painting to compare it with your reference and see if you need to make any tonal adjustments at the end.
paintings mainly use light values of colors, which are also called tints.
Strong value contrasts are generally not used in these paintings, even in shadow areas. Since high-key paintings generally radiate light, even the shadows will show reflected light and be filled with color. High-key paintings are fresh, joyous, and ephemeral in tone. On a 7-point Value Scale, they generally only range from 1 (white) to 4 or 5 (darkest value).
paintings, on the other hand, use darker values of colors, which are also called shades.
Low-key paintings are somber, mysterious, and dramatic in tone. On a 7-point Value Scale, they generally range from 4 or 5 as their lightest value to 7 (black) as their darkest.
Another factor to consider when planning your palette for a painting is the relative values of the colors and how they relate to one another. Value as a property of color means the lightness or darkness of the pure color. Each color has its own range of values and these differ widely—for example, a full-strength, out-of-the-tube mixture of Lemon Yellow will always be a higher value than a mixture of Indigo, a low value color, even when it is thinned with water.
Before starting your paintings, you should take the time to make a Value Chart of the colors you’ve selected. This will show the lightest, middle, and darkest tones of each color. It will be most helpful when you are applying your paints and matching the values in your value sketch.
Remember, to lighten watercolors, simply add water to the mixture. There are several ways to darken the tone depending on which color you are using. You can add a little bit of the complementary color, or mix in another color in the same family that is slightly darker in value. (This is very helpful with yellows, for example, Lemon Yellow mixed with New Gamboge, Quinacridone Gold, or perhaps Raw Sienna or Burnt Sienna for shadow areas).
Colors are often divided into warm
temperature values. These are important to keep in mind when establishing the “feel” or “mood” of a painting. Winter scenes, for example, usually contain a lot of blues (generally considered to be cool colors) to convey the chilly temperatures of snow and ice. Warm colors like yellows, reds, and oranges are most often used to paint tropical or desert scenes to convey the heat and warmth found in those locations. Warm and cool values are used to convey depth and distance in a painting because cool colors recede while warm tones advance.
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The floor is now open for your comments, questions, answers, suggestions, and further discussion of this topic. So-o-o, let’s talk.
LINKS TO VALUES DISCUSSIONS AND ARTICLES
Hues, Values, and Intensity
Using Value Contrasts Effectively
Using a Gray Scale for Values
Values in Colors from Pastel Forum— most informative
A Tutored Workshop—Rod Webb
Identifying and Recording Values
Creating 3-D Forms with Value Changes
Comparing Values of Colors
Understanding Color Temperature
Monochromatic Landscape Value Study
Developing Stronger Value Contrasts in a Floral Painting
Values in a Sea Turtle WIP
The Importance of Values-Quotes from Artists
Lessons from the Easel - Charles Sovek
“HOMEWORK” ASSIGNMENT FOR FEBRUARY
Here is the Homework Thread that goes with this class: *Values Homework Assignment — February* in which to post your work.
- Choose a reference photo to paint.
- Make two or more value sketches trying out different value schemes, then select one to use for your painting.
- Make a Color Value chart of the colors for your painting.
- Paint the picture, keeping in mind your values thumbnail, using value contrasts for your center of interest, leading the eye through the painting with value changes, etc.
- Share your value sketches and color chart with us, as well as your finished picture. As you finish each stage show them in the Homework thread in the Gallery—don’t wait until you’ve finished the painting. This will be like a WIP and helpful to all who are participating in the class.
- Share your thoughts about doing a painting this way, especially if it is the first time you’ve tried it.