Painting and Values #1

Value in my opinion is one of the foundations to great painting, and possibly the hardest part to master. However like most things in life simplicity is the key. Live simply, paint simply!

This is a two part post focusing on drawing in this part, then moving to painting in the next.

Value in this context is the visual tone of something, below is an example of a value scale.

This value scale is white to black in ten steps, each graduating into the next, although in this particular one the step from the darkest grey to the black is too wide.

When I began learning to paint, for a long time drawing was my focus, before I picked up a paint brush I did drawing after drawing. In pencil or charcoal drawings the values are pretty easy to see, it is amazing when coming to the end of quite a complicated drawing to see how the slightest, really imperceptible adjustments to the value have massive effects particularly to the feeling of depth and aliveness. 

As mentioned the key to a powerful drawing is to keep these values simple and to a minimum. John Singer Sargent was a true master of controlling and manipulating value, he suggested to aim for using only three values, maximum four, if you have five values in a drawing it is lost.

I can't recommend enough buying this book of Sargent's portrait drawing it is reasonably cheap and is a master class in value in drawing, there is very little text just good sized images of his drawings, below is a drawing from it.


And another!



He makes it look so simple, the following quote is also a useful piece of advice;

"If you begin with the middle-tone and work up from it toward the darks so that you deal last with your highest lights and darkest darks, you avoid false accents." - John Singer Sargent

Classically in the atelier system of learning, students drew from strongly lit plaster casts, which makes the values much easier to decipher, this is undergoing quite a revival currently, particularly in New York. Below is a fine example of a 'cast' drawing.



In my opinion one of the leading institutions of this form of learning today is the Grand Central Academy , I have to warn you though if you look at the website you may want to go to New York to join up! Below is one of the student's drawing, again following the principles of simplicity. 


Apart from keeping it simple and the number of values to a minimum, it is highly effective to show a full range of values i.e. from white to black. This is pleasing to the eye, the contrast exciting the visual cortex of the brain.

In the drawing above the full range of values is very clear, another very powerful technique seen in the drawing is to mirror this tonal contrast in nature of the line, with the highly rendered face to very loose sketch of the head, beautiful.

For me where this drawing transcends is in the extremely subtle middle tones around the forehead and cheeks. They are very delicately handled, the 'aliveness' in a portrait drawing is in the middle tones, they pleasingly convince our perception we are viewing real flesh, until the rational, left part of the brain kicks in to say 'no it's a drawing'.

To summarise, although I am going to return to this topic as there is a lot to see and comment on, I believe there are two aspects of value to focus on;

1) Have a full range of value from light to dark

2) Keep the number of values to a minimum 

My next post will comment on value in painting, and the undisputed heavy weight champion of the world in this field was Michelangelo Merisi o Amerighi da Caravaggio, or more simply Caravaggio.

Apart from his painting it is well worth reading a biography on him. He was a genius and lived a crazy, rock and roll lifestyle, he went on the run twice and was sentenced to death but survived. When commissioned to paint religious painting for leading figures of the catholic church, he used well known prostitutes as models within them risking instant death, he had an unprecedented Europe wide following of fans, I could go on...

However I will just end on one of his magnificent paintings - The Incredulity of St.Thomas. Don't forget to look for the use of values in it!









James Holman
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