Color in a painting has tremendous emotional impact…I love using colors, so much that often all I can see is the dazzling juxtaposition of color—wanting to use them all…wanting that vermillion to sit and glow beside a deep bluish green, enjoying the way a reddish gold pulsates next to a stormy Payne’s gray—and forget to take care of my values.
Values are the spectrum of light to dark in a painting. It is the use of different values that gives an object in a painting its form, its depth, its solidity…not colors. To see this at work, open a photograph in a photo editing program, and turn the color saturation up to 100%. The result is painful to the eyes. With every color saturated and glowing brilliantly, the solidity and form of the painting recedes.
It’s important to remember that every tube of paint has a value…dark red and dark green may be on opposite ends of the color spectrum, but in terms of value they are both on the very dark end of the value scale. Too many colors of the same value will result in a heavy, uniform, rather lifeless and shapeless painting…and often, because the colors themselves are so different from one another, you won’t be able to see or understand why your painting seems so flat, so “washed out” or “dark” or “leaden”. Our eyes often become so overwhelmed by the interplay of colors that we become unable to accurately identify their values.
Now desaturate the image all the way to black and white. Even without color, it’s easy to identify shape and form in the photograph. It still works. So if my initial pencil drawings (with paper standing in for lights, some sort of wash to indicate greys, and a heavy marking for the darks) don’t look balanced or clear, there isn’t much chance that adding color will ‘fix’ things. If anything, it’ll just make the illustration more confusing. A good thing to bear in mind. It pays to make thorough grayscale studies, if you’re in a hurry or don’t like scrubbing back, covering over, and strating from scratch too often.
I’ve started using a quick way to keep tabs on my values as I paint. I take my simple point-and-shoot camera, set it to black and white, and take a photo at every stage of the painting. You could then upload to a laptop for viewing, though I usually don’t bother…the viewing screen on the back of most Canon cameras (even the el cheapo ones) is usually big enough to look at the shot straight off. This allows me to keep an eye on what my values are doing. I can see right away if my painting is starting to get an allover dark treatment, if my subject is slowly disappearing into the background behind her with every burnt umber glaze I give her. I can see where a light outline might be necessary, or something needs to be brought back up to a lighter shade. I can also immediately see whether the way I have applied highlights and shadows to the subject makes it real, makes it solid, or if I have gone and put different shadows in all the wrong places, so that the light doesn’t actually come from one source, as it probably should. But even when I am not trying to paint realistically
—because painting is not about copying objects in the world so accurately that “it looks just like a photograph”…bah, what do you think a camera is for, then? Before the camera, sure, people wanted a way to document their lives, their wealth, their surrounds, and painters did that for them…but now that cameras are as common as sinks, painting has been freed from that slavish documentary role, and can finally exist for its own sake. Folks who think that ‘realistic’ determines whether a painting or drawing is good or not should go back to mowing the lawn or watching Find My family, and leave art alone. Rant over.—
…I keep an eye on values for the liveliness and movement within the painting. A dynamic balance of lights and darks, quietly leading the eye from one part of the painting to another, can give it that energy. Think Jackson Pollock. You could accidentally tip forward into one of his paintings, and might be falling forever…there’s so much space behind, inside his paintings.
All of which real painters know, and I’m not a real painter, so forgive me if I presume to spout off about some basic knowledge that I, myself, have only just stumbled upon. But if I didn’t know it before, maybe someone else will find it new, too. And these things can apply to any art or design that involves form and color…embroidery, for example. Not everything I’ve done was checked for values, and I still went ahead and made a ton of mistakes, even knowing about ‘the values thing’…like I can see in this painting that her big blooming rose of a head is the same value as the background wall…and her yellow skirt could have been a little lighter, or patterned to stand out from the background some more, too. I might make a few minor changes, but time’s a’flying, so I can only hope the next painting will be better.