The Value of a painting?

August 2, 2011

Really now, So what’s in the value of a painting?

Well truthfully there are 2 parts to that.

  • 1. the $$$ someone will trade for an intrinsic item of interest.
  • 2. the light and dark that compose the painting.

For now I’m particularly interested in the Value definition that describes the light and dark of a painting. The human eye can see all the subtle gradations of light as it illuminates an object.  Painting a recognizable object on a flat surface requires relating the values as they describe the object in space.

Since I have been away from my studio for a spell, trying to sort out other details, my paintings have been drying and cooking (sort of).  So the next time I get to start a painting around here I have to go back to a clean slate and fresh mixed paints if I intend to maintain clean paintings.  That actually requires mixing 11 distinct values of gray from my white and black.  The outer most (1) being closer to white, 5 being the middle range, and (11) black the last on the corresponding gradation.  I limit my scales to 5 when working plein air.

Gray Value Scale (11 steps)

Why?  The gray-scale establishes a consistent means to measure and test the lightness / darkness of any additional color mixtures I want to paint with.  This allows me to establish credible depth within a flat surface and limited plane.  Color or hue is all relative to its surrounding environment.  But the value or lightness / darkness of yellow measures differently when compared to blue or red.  Not to mention the infinite possibilities we can create from mixing pigments.  The more variations you have of a single color (hue) the more depth ranges you can create, even within a monochromatic (single) color study.

Color value mix. Oil samples.

But why do I mix new paint? As paint ages it dries and oxidizes.  It looses it’s luster and wetness and frequently darkens in value (especially common with oils and acrylics).  This is why I find it critical to mix fresh values regularly when I paint.   This provides a fresh clean scales to judge my other mixtures against or even more importantly try to match against.  Notice that I have taken a few extra steps for checking the relative light or dark of mixing colors by adding a piece of middle gray under my glass palette as well as a few small strips of the value scale to check against as I mix.

Taking the time to mix clean accurate values will take you r paintings a long way to helping push the contrast and add more visual interest without overloading the colors.

In the end it’s always about achieving a readable balance when we are painting –  regardless of subject or style.  It even is applicable to abstracts.   So next time you are looking at a painting, photo or cartoon that grabs your attention see how many different values you can distinguish and consider if it really does add $value$ too.

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