An Artist’s Lesson: Understanding Value

An Artist’s Lesson: Understanding Value

When artists talk about the value of a painting, they may not be talking about the price. They may be talking about the general use of dark and light tones on the canvas.

The value of any color is a relative assessment of how light or dark it is. A color with a low value will be very dark and one with a high value will be light. Putting a very dark color next to a very light color creates high contrast, and putting two colors next to each other with similar values ​​creates low contrast. An extreme example of low contrast would be painting an entire canvas in a single value, even if it’s painted in many colors.

Maybe we’re looking at a San Francisco scene and it’s a very foggy day. One of the ways an artist is going to convey that gray city landscape is to develop a composition where the value of all the colors within the painting is fairly similar. In this paint there may be colors with distinctly different hues, for example a cobalt blue with a medium hue and a crimson red with a deep hue, and yet they could have approximately the same value. The challenge for the new student is to discern the value of the different colors.

Value is important to painting because through its variations, attributes such as depth, texture, volume, distance, light source, focus points, and mood are created.

So it is important to become adept at knowing the values ​​of the colors one uses. There are several ways to develop a keener sense of worth. The simplest is to squint while looking at the subject or put on a pair of sunglasses. The more we squint, the blurrier things become and the richness of all colors disappears from our sight. Our sight becomes more black and white and the true values, brightness or darkness of all colors become more apparent. A blue, a dark red and a green can have the same value.

To truly test your sense of worth, try this simple and insightful lesson. Take a wooden cube or any cube where all the sides are the same color and place it on a piece of cardboard. Then shine a light from an angle so that the cube casts a shadow and has light and dark faces. Paint three different studies of that cube. In each study, use different colors to paint the various faces of the cube, as well as the shadow that is cast, but do your best to match each color to the value of the degree of lightness or darkness of the individual sides of the cube.

You now have three paintings from that bucket with totally different color palettes, but hopefully three paintings where the variations in value are exactly the same. To see how well he took each of the paintings and made a black and white copy on a Xerox. By producing a black and white copy, he reduces all colors to their true values. All three copies should look exactly the same, but don’t be disappointed if they don’t! Practice will bring you closer.

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