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Monday, January 8, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: Mastering values

Value is the engine that drives composition. Here’s a great exercise to help you get it right.

Four value studies of my boots. From top left: flat light, side light, fill light, back light. There's a diagram below.
I learned to paint in New York, where the sun don’t shine. I’m good with flat lighting; I still struggle with the often-dazzling light of coastal Maine. That’s one of the reasons I encourage doing value studies before pulling out all the stops in a plein air setting.

Value means the lightness or darkness of a color. There are two other attributes of color: hue (where it sits on the color wheel) and chroma (its saturation or intensity). The human eye perceives value first, so artists rightly concentrate on it.

This week, I’m pulling out an old exercise. I didn’t think it up; it has been handed down from teacher to student since the tenebrists.

The boots themselves, from top left: flat light, side light, fill light, back light.
I want you to do four different value studies of the same object. Choose an object appropriate for your drawing experience and the amount of time you have, as long as it’s not too regular or spherical. An avocado, coffee mug, or an apple will do. I used my boots. We’ve been very close friends over the past three weeks, but they were more time-consuming than was strictly necessary.

The first drawing you’ll do (top left) should be in ambient light in your studio or room, preferably during the day. The lighting should be flat, the contrast minimal. Then, add a spotlight to your process. Any table lamp minus its shade will do. Start with the light behind your right shoulder. In the third drawing, move it so that it is lighting your object directly from the side. In the fourth, bring it around as far as you can to back-light the object. (You’ll blind yourself if it’s shining directly in your eyes.)

Limit your drawing to three levels of grey and black. I used Prismacolor neutral grey markers because that's what I use in my classes and workshops. You can use pencils, charcoal or pre-mixed paint. Just discipline yourself to keep your exercise strictly to three values.

Your starting line drawing should be no more complicated than this.
Start with a simple line drawing in your sketchbook, as I did with figure 1. Then divide this into light-medium-dark areas. Fill them in appropriately and see what you get.

Obviously, there is a gradual range from absolute dark to light in a real-world scene. How you break that into light-medium-dark is subjective. You will not see the jumps at the same place I saw the jumps. Experiment! And don’t worry about creating finished artwork—I didn’t. This is a process-driven exercise. It should result in a flurry of paper rather than a masterpiece.

You will lose lines, which are what we think of as defining shapes. That’s one of the major points of this exercise. Edges have their place, but their place isn’t everywhere.

Our lighting scheme. #1 was done with ambient room (flat) light, #2 with a fill light, #3 with a side light, and #4 was back lit.
What our minds read is, “boot sitting on a table (which your mother told you not to do).” What we actually see is a series of values, in which the back corners of those boots meld into darkness and the fronts stick out and reflect light. It’s in following the values and ignoring the lines that we begin to create an artistic vision.

This is not meant to replace the pencil sketch, which is invaluable in understanding an object. Rather, it’s an extra step in planning a painting. Working in masses of values helps you to:

  • Use the full range of values; 
  • Simplify shapes;
  • See in abstract compositional terms; 
  • Focus on the movement of the eye through the painting;
  • Create more depth.

Remember, there’s a Facebook page for Monday Morning Art School. I’d love to see your finished exercises there! 


Rebecca Gorrell said...

Here's mine. I hated/loved the assignment, as I hate/love to take medicine, or work my weaknesses anywhere in my life. So much easier to just keep doing what I do, you know? I used four shades, not three, but got a lot out of the activity. How do I post pictures of my work?

Carol Douglas said...

Rebecca, follow this link and thank you SO much! I know people are doing the exercises, because I hear from them, but you're the first person to want to post them. Hooray!