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The importance of Value

   ~Value Structure~

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Todays topic is important! Artists have been e-mailing images of their work to me - it's all very nice and shows potential. However, I noticed a crucial element lacking in many of the paintings....value structure. So, I decided to talk a bit about value.

  Value Scale

A value scale (or grayscale) shows the full tonal range of a color. The value of a color is its lightness to darkness regardless of the hue. Value is more important in creating convincing form rather than the reliance on color. It is the most important design element of a painting. Without an accurate value plan, your work will appear flat. Good value structure is very important to the success of a painting. When you explore a picture in a gallery, value will dominate your visual experience - it is the strongest element in the painting.

To easily see the value structure of a painting or scene, squint your eyes until you are looking through your eyelashes - you will see its value better. Recognizing value does take some practice. Another way to judge the values in a painting is to look at it in dim light or moonlight.

  11 Step Grayscale

The image pictured below is a value scale. It is usually divided into 10 steps or less. White and black are sometimes omitted from the range...I included them here!


This grayscale is divided into 11 steps. It is a useful tool to help you match color values. It may be used in the field or the studio. As you become more experienced at painting, you will no longer require a value scale for reference.

By composing your picture with convincing value, your painting will have greater impact on the viewer - a wider range of tonal values will usually have a stronger impact. As a painter of landscapes, I'm continually faced with lighting problems. Understanding value has helped me a great deal in creating strong compositions. For instance, I have noticed that objects in direct sunlight has a shady side that is approximately 60% or more in value of the sunlit side, unless there is indirect light affecting it by local color, such as grass. Pay attention to any indirect illumination reflecting from other parts of the landscape - it affects the shadow side of objects as well as making the cast shadows darker.

Too often, attempts at painting fail because the artist is overly focused on color. The basic process of painting goes like this:

   1 - First begin with an interesting design.
   2 - Work out the composition by thumbnail sketching.
   3 - A value plan - I recommend composing a full value underpainting prior to applying the colors.
   4 - Then choose a suitable color scheme that supports your concept.
   5 - Sign and date the painting.
   6 - Let it dry completely.
   7 - Varnish it!

If the contrast of your painting is low, your picture will appear flat. It cannot be corrected by adding more color - you must focus on the values. Strong values will add depth to your subject. Highlights and shadows attract us to a painting, but it's the full range of tonal values that strengthens it. When viewing a black and white work, the range of values can easily be seen. You must learn to paint successfully by seeing, mixing and using a full range of tones with color. Too often artists overlook its importance - they concentrate on the subject and its color. Use a *value scale* (such as the one pictured above) to determine the tonal value of the subject you are interpreting with paint.

This brief explanation was to bring awareness to the importance of Tonal Value. My painting technique begins with a full value underpainting. Then the colors are applied over it with layers of thin glazes and scumbles. Often, the underpainted color will show through the subsequent applications.

More Tips:
Introduction Page | Optical Mixing | Translucent Water | Color Contrasts
Technical Tips | Hue, Value, Intensity, Color Temperature | Composition
Red Power | Keeping Acrylics Moist | Brush Care | Color | Young/Helmholtz | Book Excerpt

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