Skill Builder # 1
There are a few concepts and "skills" that can really give our paintings a boost. I've tried to include some of these here, but remember that we all have to use whatever tools best suite our style and working method. I like to think of these concepts as rules of thumb, rather than rules. Most of the time, I try to keep my head out of the way of my painting as much as possible! Even so, there are a few things that I keep rolling around up there, just in case!
Whether you are a beginner on your journey of painting or a lifelong student like myself you might be struggling with teasing out the difference between hue, value and intensity in your work. Well, you are not alone…
Its one of the hardest concepts in painting, especially discerning the difference between value and intensity.
It’s easy to associate lightness with brightness, but they are not the same thing in the vernacular of painting.
My friend Richard McKinley always says, “Color gets the glory, but value does all the work”.
Creating good paintings relies on your being able to see value in your subject accurately.
Learning to see value will help you create paintings that hold your viewers interest, create mood and excitement.
Lets take one aspect of color at a time and start by looking specifically at value.
I want to be able to paint anything that captivates me including very simple things to very complex subjects. So, I need some tools to help me out.
Let’s use a relatively simple landscape to begin with as an example.
I chose this one because it has strong shapes with clear value contrast. So, let’s take a look at this.
A few things to keep in mind. First, we want to make our job really simple. See it simply then paint it simply.
So, we need to get rid of all the distracting detail to isolate the values.
A couple of things can help us do that.
When painting, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of squinting your eyes at the subject. This reduces the level of detail you see and emphasizes the dark and light areas.
When we are squinting were kind of looking through our eyelashes creating a filter through which to better see the strong value relationships, like in example B.
Here we can see an example of just how relative value is. The grey square in the center of each square is exactly the same value. What is light in one context can appear dark in another.
Lets look at example “C”. It’s pretty easy to recognize the strong value relationships that separate shapes. By looking at where the edges of where the forms meet in our scene. Where there is more contrast the edges are relatively sharp. Look where the arrows point. We know that we’ll paint those shapes as separately in different values, such as where the large foreground tree shape meets the sky shape.
The mid-values get a little trickier. We need to compare them to the adjacent values in the subject. Where you see a softer transition from light to dark, you will want to consider massing or connecting those shapes into a larger one.. So you want to group shapes of similar value together, so you wind up with three to five with which to build the structure of your painting.
Here’s a good example of where I massed together shapes of similar value to create one larger shape.
Simplifying my composition.
It’s really good to have a value scale, whether you’ve purchased one or better yet, mad one yourself, that has the holes punched in it. This is an invaluable tool in helping to compare value. You can lay it right down on your photograph as I’ve done here or use it to sight through when painting outdoors. To really get a good idea of where you are at with your values.
Ok, I can see, I’ve got a little bit of a problem here. The middle distance band of trees are about the same value as the foreground group of trees. And it’s creating a little bit of ambiguity. What is in front of what, what is behind what? I don’t want that. I want those relationships to be really clear to my viewer. So, what do I do?
I’m going to take a little artistic license here. I’m going to make the middle distance group of trees a little lighter in value than the foreground trees. Check out my video on Aerial Perspective to see why this is almost always a good idea.
Let’s isolate these two areas, so you can see what I had in mind.
Ok, here is the result of my work so far. I’ve gathered together the values to create what I think is a strong, simple composition, that is comprised of 6 simple shapes and four values. As I move from visualizing to getting something on paper, this advance planning will give me a nice road map to work off of. I try to remember that if I get the big things right, the small things will mostly take care of themselves.
There are many ways to simplify and diminish detail. Overlaying a red rubylith in photoshop or using a red cellophane viewfinder is an alternative to squinting. Use whatever method works best for you!
And don’t forget just simply desaturating or viewing your photos in greyscale. Digital technology is a great tool that we needn’t be shy about taking advantage of.
So that’s it on “Seeing Value”. I hope you found this video helpful and will check out my other videos at