Values - the dark and light of it
Most painters believe values to be the most important part of any
painting. No matter how beautiful the colours, how perfectly placed the
arrangement with thoughtful proportions, if the painting is weak in
values, it will be a mediocre or even poor piece of work. The values are
the skeleton of the painting on which colour and form are added. Without
good values the painting collapses.
Our world gives us so many nuances of values that they cannot be
numbered. If our painting would have all these values it would be a
jumble. A limited scale value, therefore, gives the painting strength
and validity. Every subject and every day gives us a different value
range. This is why the artist must have a very sensitive eye to observe
these subtle value ranges. It is also why it is bad to paint a scene too
slowly because light is always changing.
The darks make the lights shine and the lights make the darks
The artist must grasp the light in the first half hour. He or she
must find the great ranges between the sky and the darks, the light
midtones to the light and the relationship to other midtones and to the
darks. Of greatest importance: how far is the light from the dark? After
that, we can paint all day.
We must try to observe all the values nature gives us and group them
together in four or five large value masses. After that, we can then
vary them a little with form and details. But always remember that the
values are what make the painting's shapes. The values are of greatest
importance and one of the first things to be considered.
After we have the value, then we may add colour to it. If you look at
the natural landscape, you will see hundreds of values of dark and
light. You can't possibly paint them all, so do not try. Instead
simplify the values you see simply by squinting your eyes, causing you
to see only large blocks of dark and light.
Generally, water colourists start by putting down light values and
work through middle values to darkest, simply because working over
previous areas makes them darker. Value contrast are one of the major
factors in the sparkling quality of water colours.
The darks make the lights shine and the lights make the darks seem
deeper. Light values can be tied together in a painting and so can dark
values. This can be accomplished by flowing unifying washes over certain
continuous dark shapes. This keep the parts of the painting from
becoming decentralized. The values in a picture is said to be low in
key. And the darks usually create a brooding, sober, dramatic feeling -
just as would a piece of music similarly full of deep notes. The effect
on the viewer is usually a happy one, just like the effect of a piece of
music played in the piano's bright upper register.
A word about washes
As we have seen nature's colour is full of variety, but how can we
get that feeling into our painting? Its only by working and
experimenting with colour in an effort to get a perfectly graded wash.
Anything to wary the wash and give it the look that an artist think more
accurately suggest colour, atmosphere, and light.
Mae Bennett-Brown, the fine painter of flowers had a saying "lighter,
brighter, darker, duller." She meant that every time you do a wash, you
dull it. The white paper is the cleanest and brightest light of all. The
first wash sits on the surface of the paper and is very luminous. A
second wash, glazed over the first, naturally muddies and dulls the
colour. A third wash is duller still. And so on: lighter, brighter,
darker, duller. Light is the life of the painting. And to guarantee
bright, luminous lights, the washes describing them should be lively,
bright spontaneous and unworked.
Lighter, brighter. It is also difficult technically to do everything
in one wash: you can't control your edges. Working in a series of washes
also gives you better control of your colour.
Decisions before you paint
Certain decisions have to be made even before you start to paint. For
example: What kind of day is it? Where is the sun? Is it high or low? Is
it going to be a rainy day? Each shift in position changes the character
of the subject. That's why water colourists learn to work quickly
outdoors. The painting I have done titled 'Misty morning' will show you
the values, the dark and the light and the approach to washes work.
Mist lends itself ideally for portrayal in water colour. There can be
few atmospheric effects more fascinating and mysterious. Mist has a
distinct colour of its own which may be a cold grey or even have a
The local colours of individual objects will take on some of this
mist colour. For example, when the sun is struggling to break through a
morning mist everything in the picture is in various tones of this
Nearly all modelling is eliminated in mist and you will mostly be
painting silhouettes, so the objects in your pictures should have
interesting contours retaining their crisp, sharply defined outlines.
Notice the painting I have done 'misty morning'.
I wanted to emphasize the mist. The sky was painted with a wash of
cobalt blue mixed with Rawumber and before it dried, I painted in the
pearly blue greys of the atmosphere, and gave a feeling light and the
Observe how the sunlight falls to the ground. One of the most
attractive qualities about watercolour is its ability to suggest even
the most transient effects of light, colour and atmosphere found in
The appeal of this painting lies in the delicate transition of strong
colour and the man seated on the bullock-cart in the centre of the
picture to pale, delicate tints at the edges.
The picture is composed entirely of greys, ranging from the palest
tint to the deepest grey brown, giving an impression of consistent,