Can anyone imagine doing a painting without using a number of values? Well, as an abstract design possibly, but it would be a weak design, depending solely on color for its strength. So strong are values in the painting process that the old adage is true that says: “In painting, values do all the work, but color takes all the credit.”
Color certainly attracts the eye of the viewer in a way that value could never do, but without values, no amount of color would be able to convey a sense of light in the making of a convincing landscape painting.
Values are indispensable to the landscape painter and are an essential tool in the design process. It might be well to think of values in the same way we think of the framework of a house, with color as the final paint job. As you can see, there would be no paint job without the frame, illustrating the fact that color is only right, when the value is right also… it’s a dependent relationship!
When it comes to designing, values serve three purposes: 1) Value is one of the properties of color. 2)Values in design are essential in creating compelling patterns. 3) Values need to be employed in conjunction with color and edge control, to create the illusion of light in nature. (Edge control, by the way, will be the subject of next week’s article — stay tuned!)
You can use this understanding of values in design to study the work of others, as well as your own. If you study competent paintings from the standpoint of value distribution alone, you will discover some things that stand out as universal. Here is a list of points that are pertinent in the underlying value structure of a well-designed painting:
1) Value structure plays an important role in a painting’s effectiveness.
2) Good value structure can be grouped into value families that form patterns.
3) These value families are lights, mid-tones, and darks.
4) How light, how mid-tone, and how dark can vary.
5) These patterns need not physically connect, but the connection, or relevance to each other, must be felt.
6) The proportional sizes of these families are more effective when unequal. In other words, don’t paint them as 1/3-1/3-1/3 proportions; vary the amount of space allotted to each on the canvas.
7) One of these value families usually dominates, or stands out from the other two. It’s the lights and darks that do the heavy lifting here — the mid-tones are generally used as a foil for the other two.
8) A painting can be complex or have a simple theme, but the abstract underpinnings must be simply stated to be more effective.
I believe that these principles, if used correctly, will improve any artist’s work and propel them to a higher level of painting than they would have achieved without it. But it will only work if these ideas are put into practice.
As an exercise, I would like to suggest a monochromatic block-in to understand these concepts. This can be done as an underpainting for a finished work, or a standalone exercise. One of the benefits of this type of start is that you only have to think about drawing and value, with the possible addition of edge control. Eliminating color and texture at this time will help you to think in a value mindset until you are ready to go further. The monochromatic block-in can have the added benefit of being a great underpainting for subsequent layers of rich color and thick paint.
The process is straightforward. Place your overall mid-tone broadly on the canvas, and then start putting down darks while lifting out your lights. This can be done with a rag, either moistened with thinner or dry. Often this is accomplished with an earth tone or other muted combination of pigments. I prefer to keep these on the warm side, which imbues the final painting with a rich unifying undertone. (Please refer to my feature article in the 2014 August/September issue of PleinAir magazine, for a more in-depth explanation of “Warming the Colors of the Landscape.”)
It’s important to mentally approach your subject as a series of lights, darks, and mid-tones, viewed as interlocking abstractions rather than details of the scene. In other words, don’t think trees or rocks, think shapes, size, direction, and the way these three value families form an abstract design. When placing these marks, various forms of the same general value can be connected into what is known as “super shapes.” An example of this could be the dark shape of a stand of pine trees, as well as the large shadow the trees cast. These marks will eventually become the trees or rocks, if you follow this approach — but it takes discipline to keep from falling into the “things” trap!
It’s important to keep the needs of the entire painting in mind at this stage, rather than getting derailed by details and single items that make up the whole. As the painting progresses, you can certainly re-orient your thinking to a “things approach,” but that is after the abstract hurdles have been jumped successfully!
Probably the biggest challenge of tackling your subject this way will be your own preconceived notions about what the painting process is all about. This is where a novice will try for technique, stippling a painting to death in a failed attempt to create leaves on a tree, rather than focusing on the important value shapes that will do more to give the look of a tree than any textural effects one can dream up.
That’s why we are not attempting to give any indication of texture at this stage of the game; working this way will help you to see that texture is part of the finishing process and should be postponed until the structure is firmly in place. When texture is attempted, it’s vitally important that these surface additions don’t disrupt the overall value relationships of the design and wind up fracturing the mass. (See “The Landscape Painter’s Learning Guide, Part 2,” PleinAir Today, May 31, for a description of fracturing the mass.)
The key to this approach is just to make marks on the canvas, almost without regard to what they represent. Remember to squint and “Use the Force, Luke…” — you know what I’m saying? It’s a shift in thinking that not everyone gets. It seems that no matter what I say in classes to my students, out of about 20, maybe one or two will free their minds up enough to catch the vision; but once they do, it’s like a light suddenly comes on! Yeah, when you think like this, you are thinking like an artist! It may be a struggle at first, since new ideas are not always easy to assimilate, but the rewards will be great if you stick with it!
Now some final thoughts on scene selection. This was saved for last, but realistically, it will be the first thing you do as a landscape painter. I saved it for last because many of the abstract pattern considerations that were covered in the monochromatic block-in are the same things you need to look for in selecting a scene.
One thing to be stressed, though, is that there are few if any scenes that are perfectly arranged, ready-to-paint motifs that the artist can just copy! Nature doesn’t usually accommodate us in that fashion. So instead of trying to find the perfect scene, it is up to us to look for subject matter that has several artistic possibilities that will lend themselves to creative design. The scene itself will form the nucleus or idea, and it will almost always need to be rearranged to some extent by the artist.
Finding a great scene is rarely possible if the painter is primarily concerned with comfort. Serious artists will always take the time to walk around and find vantage points that have real merit, rather than setting up in a comfortable location, under a convenient palm tree, complete with hors d’oeuvres! Although tempting at times, personal comfort should take a back seat to finding compelling views. Creative painting material, in the form of designs, won’t just fall out of the sky, and adjustments to the main idea must be supplied by the imagination.
Designs, for our purposes, are defined as shapes and movements that flow, along with value contrasts and colors that work in a cohesive way. This keeps the eye of the beholder craving more, and that is the whole purpose of a good design in the first place.
Remember that too much unity will create stagnation and result in boredom, and too much contrast leads to visual chaos. There has to be a balance here, in order to excite the mind as well as provide a sense of well-being through some subtle repetition in the scene.
Cheers and good luck, until next time!
PS: As always, if you are enjoying this series, send me a note. I would love to hear your feedback.
John Hughes is a plein air and studio artist with over 35 years’ experience. He teaches workshops and classes through the Scottsdale Artists’ School, as well as Salt Lake Community College and other venues. He has written numerous articles on painting for Fibonacci Fine Arts Digest, 15 Bytes, and Outdoor Painter. His galleries include Mountain Trails Gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Montgomery Lee Fine Art in Park City, Utah. John is a member of the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, Plein Air Painters of Utah, and the American Impressionist Society. To view John’s work and find out about his two upcoming September workshops, visit his website at: johnhughesstudio.com
John Hughes can also be reached at: [email protected]