Thursday, September 10, 2009

Art School #3: Value

Oy, is this late! What can I say, it's been a ka-razy week plus two! But let's get to this lesson, especially since it's shorter than the preceeding lessons have been (a habit I hope to continue).

I attended a week-long painting workshop put on by watercolorist Tony Couch. Midweek he put away his paints for the morning and gave a lecture to those who wanted to hear. He packed more into that lecture than I'd gotten with four years studying art at Carolina.

One of the things he did was to list all the things an artist had to keep in mind while they were painting. It went on and on: edges (soft and hard), composition, eye movement within canvas, brushstrokes, etc etc etc, seemingly ad infinitum. While we groaned, he told us that learning to paint was like learning to drive: you mastered one or two things, then moved on to the next thing. You don't learn everything all at once. As you practiced, what you had learned became second-nature and you could move along to the next item.

In other words: don't sweat it.

But of all the things he listed, the most important was VALUE. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of something. Light = "high" value; dark = "low" value. Many times you'll see a gray scale, labeled from 1 to 10. 1 will be white and 10 will be black.

Value in painting is like characterization in novels. You can do the work without paying much attention to these things, but what you produce won't be very enjoyable. Both are the most important element in their art form. If you get the values in your painting right, you can slab on just about any color you want and it'll still make an acceptable painting. Paint with lovely colors but ignore value? You get a mess.

Observe the above. On the left we have our oranges done in tones of only black. You can see a complete range of values here. On the right I've tried to take out as much of the value as I could and was 75% successful. We are left with hue, or color.

Which is the clearer picture?

Even without orange, our black-and-white value oranges are clearly recognizable as such.

Values can give a painting emotion. High-value paintings, or those that don't use the darkest darks, can be cheery. Low-value paintings, or those that don't use the lightest lights, can be mysterious. You don't have to use the entire range, either. You can settle on the mid-tones only, which might give you a bit of a dull painting without the "umph" of extremes, or you can lop off one end or the other of the range.

I own an art book that has you begin by painting a mid-tone color all over your canvas. The author uses red. (After last spring's plein air experience, I'll never do that again!) Then he paints a pattern of black showing the darkest parts of his subject. Then he puts in the lightest tones by painting a pattern of white. When he gets a pattern he likes, he starts to paint for "real," knowing that he's got a solid painting under way.

This pattern is one in which your eye will remain wandering your canvas. It should start in at your focal point (which has the greatest contrast in values within it), the main target of whatever you're painting, and then wander about over the canvas (don't let the eye travel off the canvas!), having a good experience in doing so, and returning to the focal point to begin again. A painting is supposed to be entertainment, like a good book or movie. You've got an audience, even if it's just yourself you want to please. You keep it entertained and rapt by providing this gazing journey and along the way you paint in surprises and calm spots, keeping everything varied and interesting.

But the basic way, the starting point, for all this is VALUE.

Notes to ponder: Many landscape painters begin with small sketches ("thumbnails") of their subject rendered in just four values. They take the 1-10 value scale and reduce it to a range of four values. This helps them simplify their subject. I like to use three increasingly gray markers plus the white of the paper I'm sketching on to provide my 4-step scale. Try it with different subjects and see how it works for you.

Also note: North Light Books puts out a little plastic value scale for artists to refer to. (Believe me, value scales come in very handy at times!) The only thing is, they print it on a medium-gray plastic. That means that in the slot for value #1, which should be white, you get the gray that is the plastic. The gray ground contaminates every value on the scale except for #10, which is black, because the gray makes it much darker than it should be.

This value scale is a best-seller at North Light, a truly WTF (pardon my French) idea! Don't use this kind of scale. Use one that's printed on white so that #1 is white, #10 is black, and the other slots on the scale are evenly graded between.

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