Bowing to value


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Emily Moore wrote, “Recently I have been admitting that the bottom line is ‘light, middle and dark.’ I resisted the importance of value over color for a long time, but I have succumbed. Bowing to value can liberate color options, so color can waltz in the back door and right on down to the front row while value is being courted at the front door.”

Thanks, Emily. Nice way of putting it. Better work happens when we’re able to keep both dancers on the floor at the same time. True, most of us need to think of tone value before we think of colour. Here are a few thoughts:

Work with large and small patches or areas of tone. Particularly at the beginning, consciously avoid colour. Make sure there’s an abundance of middle tones. A photographer’s gray-scale is a surprisingly handy tool. By emphasizing middle tones you’ll find it easier to find your darker and lighter ones. Here is a tried and true academic sequence: middle tone, darker dark, lighter light, darkest dark, lightest light. Don’t be afraid of basic and simple palettes. A lot can be done with the likes of umber, ultra blue and white. Tones of grey — even those made with black — can give suggestions for colours that might follow later. A great exercise is “grisaille,” where the composition is laid down and nearly completed in monotone. If it works in monotone, it’ll certainly work in colour. Colour, in the grisaille system, is applied last — often with transparent glazes. In the event that a colour begins to dominate, as some tend to do, half close your eyes to see what’s going on, and make adjustments. If you don’t like squinting, a quick black and white photocopy can often show you where the problems lie. Paintings go best when you think of the whole exercise as a “set-up.” The lightest lights, in particular, need to be kept in the quiver for the final shots.

“I don’t like working this way because it doesn’t seem natural — it’s not as expressive,” said a student in a friend’s workshop. We are living in an age of expressiveness where individualism and quick satisfaction are in style. I like to point out that many seemingly dated processes, when learned and pocketed, are really a key to growth. For many of us, these academic processes may hold an even greater potential for expression. A lot of lovely waltzing got started with a few stiff black and white step-marks painted on an old studio floor.

Best regards,


PS: “If you have used colour throughout most of your artistic life, try just black and white. It will take your painting to another dimension where tone and form in all their permutations reign supreme.” (David Louis)

Esoterica: “Think value first, then colour,” says water-media educator Carl Purcell in Painting with your Artist’s Brain. If a painting is turning out to be dull and uninteresting, throwing on some bright colours is not the solution. If values are poorly planned, no amount of colour will fix things up. “Good colour is key to the success of any painting, but a well-executed value plan is what will captivate your viewers.” (Carl Purcell)


Unique watercolour methodology
by Kristi L. Johnston, Mansfield, MA, USA


“Japanese Maple”
watercolor painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Kristi L. Johnston

I would like to offer a few comments on how the principles of value need to be altered for watercolor. I completely agree that control of value is the key to a strong painting. However, in pure watercolor the whites and lightest values need to be planned and saved before a stroke goes on the paper, as it is impossible to put them in last. More intense darks may always be added, but with traditional cotton paper, once the white has been covered, it will never sing the same tune! Also, for clear vibrant colors, an underpainting or grisaille may not be used for the finished painting, though a value sketch before beginning is a very useful tool.


Value and colour processed separately
by Robert McLaren, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

In her book, Vision and Art:The Biology of Seeing, Margaret Livingstone, a neurophysiologist, explains how our visual system processes two integral components of art, luminance (value) and color, in two separate parts of the brain. These parts are as anatomically distinct as vision is from hearing. The book is written for the layman and some of our readers may find it worth reading.


Art jargon
by Ken Campbell, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Field Sketch: Goldstream Estuary”
oil painting, 8 x 8 inches
by Ken Campbell

There is only one term I would take exception with — monotone. I knew what you meant but the jargon is misleading. Do you mean “monochrome” here? To me monotone means one tone or value. Monochrome means one colour. So a monochromatic painting is one created with one colour plus white, like burnt umber and white or ultramarine and white. (I guess a monotone painting is created with one value and would be hard to see!)

More jargon… Strictly speaking a painting created with only black and white is referred to as “achromatic” or having no colour. After the colour-glazing is completed, the painting will be polychromactic. Therefore a grisaille in black and white would be achromatic. One painted in brown and white would be monochromatic — what was referred to as “bistre” in the Flemish tradition. And an underpainting made with grayed green in the Venetian or Verdaccio technique is monochromatic too. I work in and teach these techniques and was delighted to read your related article(s). There is so much to learn from the old masters (Vermeer, Titian, Caravaggio, Valasquez, etc).


Grisaille a versatile tool
by Melinda Copper, Monticello, FL, USA


oil painting
by Melinda Copper

I am so glad you spoke up for value! Specifically grisaille, which I learned to do when teaching myself to paint by copying old masters. It turned out to be such a great and versatile tool that I use it for everything from portraits to cartoon-like illustrations. Glazed with acrylics, it is quick, rich, and extremely spontaneous… I don’t have to think about color and form at the same time, and the less I have to think the more I just enjoy the ride. Not for everybody, but if you have trouble walking and chewing gum (like me) you might like it.




Value and Notan
by David Reeves, Quispamsis, NB, Canada


“Strawberries and Beer For Peter”
watercolour painting, 14.5 x 19.5 inches
by David Reeves

I’ve been conducting watercolour and pastel workshops over the past year and have been emphasizing the value of the importance of values. It was Carl Purcell’s book you referenced that really got me tuned into this approach along with his other valuable lessons. The Japanese concept of Notan in which several small black and white thumbnail value sketches are first developed have proven to be a few minutes of time well spent when designing a painting. Although these appear deceptively simple, it is quite difficult at first to design in only two values as my students and I have discovered. Of course, the Notan concept can be extended to include the mid-tones, as your writer discussed, but this approach tends to drive me toward too much initial detail, losing the design of the overall value shapes.


Value scale painted in strips
by Mary L. Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“Last Dance”
oil painting, 11.25 x 19.5 inches
by Mary L. Moquin

An interesting project I have my students do is create a value scale in long strips going down the page. A long vertical strip of the lightest gray, followed by a darker, then a darker, etc. until reaching black. About 8 gradations will do. I usually have them do that part in acrylic so it will dry quickly. Then I have them apply their colors (oil or acrylic) over the gray scale matching the value. Starting with a red, adding white until it matches the value of the lightest gray and then applying a blob of the mixed color over the light gray strip. Then mixing a batch to match the next strip of gray and continuing until the color can not get any darker. Few colors can become as dark in value as black. They proceed through all the colors that they own. Some colors of course will only make it part of the way on the chart. Yellow never makes it past the lightest gray. It is amazing how difficult this assignment is and many people mistake intensity for value and attempt to see yellow and orange as much darker in value. The true test is then to take a digital of the piece and use a photo editing program (such as Photoshop) to turn it into grayscale image. The spots of paint, if applied correctly, will blend and disappear into the original strips of value. I always find this to be a real eye-opening experience for people. Pure color does have value, and when you learn to see it you can bypass things like grisaille underpaintings.


Filters for seeing value
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA


“Triptych: Buffalo Moon”
fiber collage/assemblage with handmade artifacts
by Luann Udell

I’m just finding out the importance of value with my fiber wall hangings. The more successful ones use value well. It’s vital for strong compositions. Quilters have a simple tool that may be even easier to use (and find) than a photographer’s gray scale. It’s a transparent red film or plastic piece used as a color filter you look at your fabric through. Color is eliminated as a quality, and only the value of the fabric’s color is seen. I thought the red filter worked with any color, but the product description says, “Use Red filter with warm colors (red, yellow, orange, green) and use green filter with cool colors (red violet, purple, blue, blue-green.)”

(RG note) Thanks, Luann. These red and green filters are otherwise known as the Color Evaluator 2 by Cottage Tools.


Maintaining true colors and values
by Ron Elstad, Anaheim, CA, USA


“The Fall’s Eye View Of The Chama River”
oil painting, 30 x 36 inches
by Ron Elstad

My limited palette consists of a warm and cool hue of each of the primaries and a couple of secondaries. This includes from warm to cool: cad yellow, cad orange, scarlet lake, crimson lake, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, phthalo blue, phthalo green and permanent green light. As you see my palette is devoid of blacks, browns or grays. I don’t include these because they have a tendency to cause mudding or a dulling of the colors. As far as seeing values, I use a red gel. The red gel translates the colors into their true values, so I see only values. I view the original image through this red gel and compare it with the painting I’m working on. Moreover, I believe it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice value for intensity of color — especially the lighter values of the composition.


Variations in student expectations
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA


Dyan Law in Brittany, France

Most of my adult life I’ve been painting and teaching art and have found that formulas for value and color need to be adjusted for each and every work we do. What works as a formula for some emerging artists is ineffective for others. I try to stick to my academic leanings. However, what do I do with the student who is only interested in being “expressive” and quick? True, they do not advance as quickly as my other students who take the time and do the “process.” Better artwork is the goal for some. But it seems that for others it’s simply the act of doing something creative. The longer I teach the more I am accepting of the differences of the many students who pass through my studio. Their progress varies, but their joy in participation is always gratifying.


Tried and true methods
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“East End Striper”
oil painting
by Coulter Watt

I’m a traditional painter — technically — so for me, the importance of value can’t be over-stressed. Value defines how light flows through an image, directing the eye around the canvas and to the primary object/subject. As a general rule, I wash in values with Burnt Umber or Burnt Sienna. This renders a warm tone to the painting and they have the attractive quality of being rapid driers. This is also the stage where I decide that the draftsmanship is correct or needs modification. This method also adheres to the “lean to fat” rule of painting, referring to the quantity of oil in the paint in sequential layers. These “academic” methods were born out of centuries of experience by the old masters for very good reasons.



Attitudes about black
by Merv Brandel, Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada

I am a full time painter and teach an oil painting class at The Old School House in Qualicum Beach, B.C., Canada. I was always taught to not use black in any of my paintings. In fact, I do not own a tube of black paint. In art college we did the tone value exercises using only one colour or black with white. I always tell my students to leave the black at home because there are so many other ways to make black with the 3 primary colours. What are your thoughts on the colour black?

(RG note) Thanks, Merv. Black has undergone a lot of badmouthing for the last hundred years. Of course, used neat, it can knock holes in paintings. But mixed with other colours as well as white, it can be noble indeed. Renoir said, “I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colours is black!” Many fine painters, both living and dead, wouldn’t be caught dead without it. For more insight on black and its beauties, please see Black beauty.


Sayings about work
by John Irving, Scotland, UK

Regarding work, here in Scotland you will get the answer, “It’s the old Scottish Protestant work ethic!” Generally followed by, “To work is to pray.” This saying is attributed to St. Benedict, and the Catholics in Ireland say it too. I am mindful that during the Nazi regime in Germany, above the entrances to the concentration camps, there was a slogan, Werk Macht Frei. Work makes us free.


Wait for work to talk
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic


walnut, plum and poplar sculpture
by Norman Ridenour

As a sculptor, my work is in the studio for long periods. The good pieces develop a persona and name themselves after I start to talk to them and they to me. If this does not happen I have to carefully examine if the piece is really going to “come alive.”







Number or signal for title
by Helder Vieira, Rio Maior, Portugal

Normally I don’t title my work. Most of the work stands for itself; no need for a title. Maybe a number or some kind of signal to identify it. That’s an element of comprehension and understanding beyond plastic relevances.


How creative are we?
by Jack Benson

I am a scientist and an artist. I have been a scientist for many years. I am just now becoming acquainted with the local arts community. Recently I have come to the realization that art and creativity do not necessarily go hand in hand. It cannot be assumed that all artists are creative, original people. In fact I believe that science regularly calls for very creative and original work, and as individuals, many of the scientists I know are much more creative and original than the artists I am acquainted with. Not to say that all artists are uncreative and unoriginal — there are some very creative and original artists, but many, many artists are neither, just as many scientists are neither. I am curious as to what your readers think of this.





A peaceful place

acrylic painting
by Marlene Bulas, Orillia, ON, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Todd Plough of New York, USA who wrote, “Those who think academic disciplines are useless are those who are too lazy to learn them. Salvador Dali said, ‘No masterpiece was ever created by a lazy artist.’ He knew the rules before he bent them — and watches.”

And also Lois Jung of Hutchinson, KS, USA who wrote, “When I started with pen and ink I had to explore values immediately! Now that I am back to pastels, I am more aware of values. ”

And also Jana Botkin of California, USA who wrote, “I have been putting my students’ colored pencil pieces on the copy machine to check for values for years — it helps!”

And also Peter Worsley of Santa Barbara, CA, USA who wrote, “I usually do a fairly complete monotone values sketch of my portraits using the same oil-based burnt sienna of my under-painting. As I paint in the colored over-painting, the under-painted sketch gives me the value guidelines I need.”

And also Cassandra Tondro who wrote, “What about the minimalists, like Mark Rothko? There’s no contrast between values in his work at all. Or James Hayward, where there is only texture and each painting is all one color. I love these paintings, despite the absence of value.”




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