Skip to main content

Where's The Light, What's The Color? Part Two

Green value scale
Green value scale

The Value of Things

With last week’s post, I was mentioning hue and value (color and dark and light) being a couple of things I think beginning painters struggle a bit with. So last week I touched on hue or color first and if you missed it, I would recommend reading it first here. This week I’m going into value or the dark and light of things.

While not impossible, most of the realistic subject matter a painter will paint will have highlights and shadows, light areas and dark areas or what are varying shades or values. Most even know that a value scale has white at one end and black at the other with as many versions of gray as you wish to choose in between. Take white, add little bits of black making it a darker and darker gray, or take black and keep adding white to make a lighter and lighter version of gray. At some point, they will cross each other’s path in the middle at equal parts - 50% of each black and white.

The cool thing of course, is it doesn’t have to be black and white, it can be very dark blue and very light blue with all the variations in between. It can actually be any color you choose. So what do you get from being conscious of value? Well, with your painting think of looking at your completed work of art as a harmony, like Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Graham Nash sings high, Stephen Still lower and David Crosby right in the middle. Together they harmonize, but perhaps as with any harmony, the hardest voice to pick out singularly is the one in the middle or in this case, Crosby. Yet many beginning painters overlook the whole point of that harmony and just paint Crosby’s voice. I hope I’m making sense.

If you look at your painting and everything is the same value, nothing light or dark, your paintings may likely appear flat. So the first question you should ask yourself about value is where and what is my light source? Is it natural (from the sun) or unnatural (from electric bulb)? Is it behind, in front, from the side, down low, or up high? Is it weak light or intense? Once you know these answers you can paint those answers into your painting.

Take a tree. A tree is not solid, it is a living thing with a structural part, (the wood) and a non structural part, (a bunch of leaves). While the trunk and branches are not transparent, the leaves largely are. But out in a field with the low morning sun hitting a tree, the side facing the sun will be much lighter than the backside right? Which by the way will likely be casting a shadow too. So, you have to paint Stills and Nash as well, not just Crosby! The tree will not be just one value, it will be many and having different hues or the varied colors going on as well.

Mulberry tree in summer Mulberry tree early fall