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Old 12-20-2007, 12:59 AM
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d6monk d6monk is offline
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Why work dark to light?

Hi everyone,

I have been doing a lot of reading lately and I always come across pastel books recommending that I work from dark to light. Why is this? Some books claim that it has to do with dark colors becoming chalky when done over lights due to intermixing and that there are no such intermixing problems when working lights over darks. However, doing my own tests I didn't see any evidence of this. Another reason I've heard is that it helps you get your values right. However, many prominent artists like Trevor Chamberlain recommend painting middle values first and working your way out to the lights and darks, and still others like Joseph Zbukvic recommend working from light to dark! If anyone could help me in my confusion I would really appreciate it.


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Old 12-20-2007, 01:26 AM
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Deborah Secor Deborah Secor is offline
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Re: Why work dark to light?

Adam, I interview a lot of pastelists in my job so I can tell you with certainty that there are plenty of different ways to structure values! I think the idea of starting with darks arose back in the days, not all that long ago, when we pastelists didn't have as many strong, saturated dark sticks as we do now. When I began in the early- to mid-80s I had a set of Rembrandt pastels and about my darkest dark was the old Nu-Pastel bottle green. The Rembrandts had a black and one blue that were fairly dark, but you really had to stretch to get the darks into place. There was a preponderance of light colored pastels (a portion of the reason we identify the word pastel with light colors, I think.) The lights had more saturation, so they would influence the insipid darks if you worked over them.

These days we have our nice, rich dark colors in all kinds of brands, but back in 1996 (not sure of that year--someone else will know--Peggy!?) when we had our first IAPS convention, we literally stood up and demanded nicely that the manufacturers make some good strong dark colors. They have responded admirably!

All that to say, using darks first isn't a bad way to go, but it doesn't come of necessity as it might have in the past. Many people have learned this way and cling to the method because it's tried and true, but I often find myself structuring things in different ways for different paintings. A lot depends on your goal, and dovetails with the color of paper, whether your value structure is high- or low-key, and how much contrast you hope to achieve, as well as various other things...

I'm teaching a method that Maggie Price demonstrates in her book that predicates the values on warm and cool temperature, as well as value. She uses six values, three yellows and three blues from lightest light to darkest dark, and places the yellows wherever there is sunlight, blues in shadow areas. The results are amazing... so there's another method to explore.

For many years I've taught my students to begin their landscapes with a complete underdrawing in charcoal to establish all the values before putting down any color, directly on top of the charcoal. I recommend giving dark to light a try, then see if you're happier starting with mediums, then try light to dark--and maybe Maggie's method, too! No one is right. It's just what works best for you.

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Old 12-20-2007, 01:31 AM
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d6monk d6monk is offline
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Re: Why work dark to light?

Thanks Deborah!
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Old 12-20-2007, 01:53 AM
PeggyB PeggyB is offline
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Re: Why work dark to light?

You almost have the year of the first IAPS convention correct Deborah - it was 1995 in Denver. Since then it has been every other year - or the odd numbered years if that's easier for you to remember (just think of "those ODD pastelists" and you'll always know what year to attend a convention even if you don't know the exact date! ) .

At that convention Sidney Hermel, then president of PSA, gave a demonstration wherein he started with medium and light values. He said he didn't pay too much attention to the "rule" of starting with the darks, but rather worked with whatever means suited him best at the moment. Sidney was a great, sharing person, and is deeply missed by many in the pastel world. It was through Sidney's encouragement that I learned to "let go and let be" with pastels. If it works for you, do it. If it doesn't work for you, find what will even if it isn't exactly standard proceedure.

So Adam do what you are comfortable doing and just paint, paint, paint as that is the best way to learn what works for you - almost a direct Sid quote!

Peggy Braeutigam, IAPS/MC
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Old 12-20-2007, 03:05 AM
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Re: Why work dark to light?

I always thought it had to do with keeping your lights clean, anyway I just usually start from the top left hand corner and do whatever, working with a mahl stick to keep my hands away from worked areas. It works for me! Art Spectrum have some lovely dark pastels, also a new almost white collection with just a hint of colour.
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Old 12-20-2007, 08:29 AM
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Re: Why work dark to light?

I start in the middle and then work both lighter and darker. It is important though to add lights in the end because usually the lights you add (the brightest leaves, highlights on branches, grasses, etc.) are in front of darker areas. Whatever pastel dust lays on the top most layer, will always give the impression of being in front of whatever is underneath.

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Old 12-20-2007, 10:18 AM
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Re: Why work dark to light?

I start with the darks and work lighter but revisit them hard toward the end.
I do this because I always seem to work lighter than I should. I lighten all my lights at the end also. I do agree with Don though on the leaves thing.
Peter (Pete) C. Lavin
"Every subject has every color in it. The trick is to pick the colors that best represent the mood your trying to convey." - Peter C. Lavin

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Old 12-20-2007, 05:38 PM
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Re: Why work dark to light?

Thanks for the replies. When I think about it I do much the same. I guess it becomes automatic. Pastel is my very favourite medium!
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Old 12-21-2007, 03:19 AM
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Donna A Donna A is offline
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Re: Why work dark to light?

Hi, Everyone! I realized some years ago that the reason the Old Masters must have worked from dark to light was to keep the the whites out of the way the longest they could! Yes, really truly! White, as lovely as it is in so many ways, is as good a way to muddy up a color as any (as in a rose in a wheat field is a weed!) (Or---if you don't take cream in your coffee and someone puts a few drops in---there is NO way to get rid of it! It's always cloudy where you did not intend for it to be!)

Beginning with a middle value---that does not have white! is a fine way to start for many paintings. Or medium-dark. Sidney Hermel worked gorgeously on black paper, so middle value was the perfect place for him to begin!!! He already had his darkest darkest darks in place! But for someone working on white to middle-value colors? Perhaps medium-dark might be the place to begin. I definately do not want to begin with the darkest darkest darkest colors. They are, in most paintings, more accents than 'yardage.' Now---if I were creating a painting where the majority of it was significantly very dark---I would likely begin with the significantly dark! Doing a snow scene---mostly snowy---my 'darks' would expectably be pretty light on the whole scale of possiblities! And---I would probably paint in some of the darker darks within the range of my painting's subject! And those darks might be tremedously similar to the lights from the previously suggested subject.

Darks, for the most part (in general, on average, etc.) are in the back ground or, as I was saying today in class---"in the cavern" hidden from the light. As objects or planes move forward into the light, they catch more light. Yes, there are exceptions---but for the most part---the lights are the further-most in front---and that alone makes a case for painting from back to front---or---dark to light! It's just that there are other reasons as well. White---a wonderful asset---when used wisely!!! Remember---any pastel that is not a PURE color of pigment---which is a tint---has white in it. White---very truly wonderful pigment---cools colors---any colors it mixes with. If something is being made lighter because sunlight or an incandescant light is shining on it---it will be warmer---hence---golden in some way---not frosty cool light. So---white is not the best choice in so many situations! Especially when beginning a painting that is not watercolor!!! Or an oil or acrylic that is set up to be glazed over and over again as the major ways of achieving the final color effects!

I think medium-dark or at least medium is an important way to begin---unless you are working on a medium-dark to very dark back ground. Then---I think it is pretty important to establish the value range which is THE MOST DIFFERENT from the value range of the surface you are working on. What that does for you---in the early stages of the painting---is to begin to establish value range. Between works that I have done and works I've seen so many other artists doing in classes and workshops---it gives you the perimeters within which most of your painting will happen! And that serves you so very well!

One of the artists in class today said something rather marvelous! She's been on the planet a good number of years painting! We'd been talking about her issues with her having lost the looseness of her paintings as she progressed through a painting---and eventually said "I know too much now..." as the reason she could no longer paint with simplicity. That has resonated with me from the moment she said it! It's marvelous what any of us may say as a mentor---but---what ends up being so important is what seems to give us THE MOST EFFECTIVE, SATISFYING results!

Do take into consideration what value paper you are working on and what general value your subject is. I sooooo believe in working from dark to light. We just have to keep our brain connected to what we are doing----as well as---even more importantly---our heart and soul---which is our intuitive---connected to what we are creating!!! Very best wishes! Donna ;-}
Donna Aldridge M-MAPS PSA xxxxxxx www.aldridgestudios.com

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I celebrate the beauty around us with Color and Light! Donna Aldridge

Last edited by Donna A : 12-21-2007 at 03:28 AM.
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Old 12-21-2007, 05:54 AM
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Colorix Colorix is offline
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Re: Why work dark to light?

To throw in my meagre one cent :-) I cover the paper with colour from the start, blocking in the major masses. Going from darkest mass to the lightest. Then putting in the darkest darks, they are accents. (White to mid-tone paper.) I usually work lighter over dark (usually looks better), but a sky may need darkening, and then I blend in a darker blue, and that works well.

To me, establishing the light-key with the first block in is important, and it is easier to lighten than to darken.

And to add to Donna's comment about white: it also cools a colour, as well as dulling it. One may need to go for a tint of an orange-red for a warm pink, as a tint of a red-red gives a cooler and duller pink, for example.

Oh, white also recedes, while yellow comes forward.

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Old 12-21-2007, 12:00 PM
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ElsieH ElsieH is offline
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Smile Re: Why work dark to light?

I learned to much for reading Maggie Price's book, too!
I used to rigidly follow the old adage about dark to light. Then I realized that to use underpainting ideas, I had to break out of this pattern.
There are times I want to just go for the lights in one area and add a few darks as needed or I want to go for the darks and add a few lights as highlights. I agree that you have to be careful what you put over what...you can muddy your color either direction you work.
I'm finding that the more practice I get, the easier decisions about this are to make. I guess it is the old rebel inside of me coming out: but as soon as I feel like I'm following "someone else's" rule, I start breaking it to see what happens. Then I make up my mind follow or not!
I move back a forth from pastels to watercolor and back to pastels. At first this seemed to be a big problem. Which am I doing? Opps, I went in the wrong sequence. Then it dawned on me that I needed to forget about this rule and think out the situation in the painting I'm doing in either medium.
I feel my watercolors have become better and my pastels, too. They seem to be more of a dialogue than an argument between the two media these days!
Happy Painting!
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