Limited Value Monochromatic Paint Study

One of the most difficult aspects of painting and drawing is learning to see what I call ‘Global Value Relationships’ or Value Families. By ‘global value’, I’m referring to an average value of an area compared to an average of another. In other words, how dark/light a general area is compared to another.  Just like learning to simplify structure in a block-in can be challenging, learning to simplify value groups/families can be equally so.

Part of this difficulty occurs simply because the amount of deail we immediately perceive in the visual world around us often overshadows our attempts to see broadly. Another more specific reason is the longer we stare at something, the more value separations we tend to perceive, and thus begin to overstate those differences and incorrectly place values that are outside of their correct value family. One common example of this is the tendency to overstate reflected light within a shadow shape. Usually sandwiched between the core-shadow and cast-shadow, the reflected light appears to pop out and is often mistakenly identified with value families of the half-tones or even light half-tones (the exception being when the surface is very reflective such as a metal object). Take a moment to examine the sphere below (Fig.1), notice how the reflected light (labeled #2) is deceptively darker then the marked area in the halftones (labeled #1). On first glance, it would appear they are the same.

Fig. 1.  Comparison of Reflected Light with Half-Tones


Below is a ‘poster edges’ filter applied to the same sphere (Fig.2). Notice how the computer ‘decides’ to group the dark half-tones, shadow shape (including reflected light) and cast shadow as one value. Part of the core shadow and darkest dark under the sphere are grouped into a value one step darker.

Fig.2. Sphere with a ‘poster edges’ filter applied


Learning to see in terms of broad value groups/families is critical to achieving successful representational paintings. Effective global value relationships are what is responsible for grabbing the viewers attention from across the room. If you had to choose, it is far better to have your painting lacking in detail and fine-tuning then to be lacking on the ‘big picture’ scale. For this reason, smaller more specific value relationships always need to play second fiddle to your broader/global arrangements.

Below is the same sphere grouped into value families in a 6-value scale (Fig.3). Take the necessary time to analyze this illustration. Would you have made the same choices in grouping? Notice the choice to allocate more steps in the dark-halftones to halftones, and the other steps are more spread out. The reason for this is the rate of gradation/value changes tends to occur more ‘rapidly’ in the dark-halftones as it turns out from the core-shadow. This is of course variable depending on how round, flat, or faceted the form is, but generally speaking the area of gradation coming out from the core shadow is of primary importance to creating images that read 3-dimensionally. Areas in the lights and and shadows can be simplified without losing much sense of volume, but if the dark half-tones are too simplified your image will begin to read more like a 2-dimensional graphical depiction then a 3-dimensional form. Take for example an overexposed photograph where the lights are ‘blown out’, or an underexposed one where all the shadows are completely black. Notice they both still read as 3-dimensional- this is because in both cases the dark half-tones are still functioning. Thus, if you only have 6 values to work with, it is a good choice to allocate an extra step to this area.

Fig.3. Breakdown of a 6-value scale on a sphere


Now that we’ve become familiar with the conceptual premise behind doing a 6-value paint study, let’s move onto the application of doing so:

Step 1:

The first thing to do is mix a 6-step value scale on your palette that you will be using for your study. I usually create the black with 2 parts ivory black and 1 part raw umber. In making your 6 steps, try to have the ‘jumps’ between each value be as even as possible. Also, mix enough so that you don’t run out of anything in mid-painting process.

Remember the objective of this exercise is to learn to see ‘global value relationships’, and how to group areas into their fitting ‘value families’. To avoid getting caught up in detail and derailed from the intent of this exercise, you’ll be limiting yourself to choosing only from your six pre-mixed values and won’t be blending at allon the canvas. Refrain from the urge to blend because that will defeat the purpose of this exercise. This way you’ll be forced to choose which of the six value families the area your working on belongs to and will help keep you thinking globally.  If you simply cannot keep yourself from blending, repeat the exercise using 6 tones of paper where you cut out the shapes according to their value family and place them as you would in a collage.  It is a good idea anyhow when doing this exercise in paint to think of your six values as puzzle pieces that need to be placed well on the canvas. Use your black mirror as if it were the oracle of value studies.

Fig.4. Mixing a 6-step value scale on your palette.


Step 2:

Block-in your image. Do not spend excess time on this stage, especially if you only have 1 session. Remember, the goal is to complete a study in global value relationships, not a block-in exercise. Mass in the big shapes and proportions as close as you can get within 2 poses maximum.

If I am doing a value study for a painting that I already have a finished block-in drawing for, I will often make a reduced-size photocopy of that block-in and transfer it to the value study surface in order to expedite getting to the value placement stage and have a more accurate block-in.

Fig.5. Basic Block-In


Step 3:

Analyze and plan how you’ll be mapping out your values and create a ‘paint by numbers’ labeling on your canvas. This will really help you to not get lost in the woods. Ultimately you may make a few different choices once you have some of your value relationships in place, but see how good you can get at this mapping/planning stage. Take a few minutes to study the image below and follow the thought process.

Fig.6. Mapping your Value Families


Step 4:

Place in your darkest darks, which is our value #6 on a 1-6 scale where 1=white and 6=black.

Fig.7. Placing your darkest value group


Step 5:

Apply all the areas that correspond to the value family number 5. Remember, you’re learning to group your values and ‘see beyond the details’, so even though in this case there were small value variations in areas like the fabric up front, it’s all been grouped into the same family.

Fig.8. Placing Value #5

Step 6:

Apply all the areas that correspond to value family’s  4 and 5. Notice that I broke up the area behind the figure with some number 4’s as the ground plane was looking like a floating carpet.

After finishing the areas in the 4 and 5 group, scan for the lightest lights and place any areas that correspond to the value group #1 if any. In this setup, I saw it limited to the light on top of the hip extending somewhat into the leg and torso.

Fig.8. Placing Values #4, #5, and #1

Step 7:

Apply all the areas that correspond to value family numbers 3 and 2. You can see that our number 3 functioned as the value for much of the half-tone turning out of the core-shadows.  Notice though areas like the face though, that are in the lights but more overall in the 3 category then 2. Finally, step back and scan for any areas that aren’t reading. In making any adjustments avoid blending and be careful to not mush things around. Simply apply a bold but accurate new stroke(s) to effectively replace and cover the previous value. That’s it! when stepping back several feet, your image should read from a distance almost like a finished painting.

Fig.8. Placing Values #3, #2, and make adjustments if necessary

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