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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 seem deeper

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 yellow tint.

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 golden colour.

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 mist.

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 nature.

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, harmonious light.



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