Tips on Oil Painting – Painting Values
It may come as a surprise to most people when I say that the colors in a painting are not the first thing the viewer’s brain takes in. In fact, the viewer’s brain will subconsciously go for the values (ie, the darks and the lights) first.
The eye is very sensitive to variations in darks and lights. The colors themselves have each own own value. It is therefore just as important to reproduce the values in a painting as it is in a drawing. We must understand that if the value of the color is wrong then the actual color is wrong.
Every color has three faces to it: hue (red, yellow, etc.), value (dark, light, etc.), and intensity (bright, dull, etc.). And, in fact, boring as it may sound, value is the most important of the three. It is through value that we can reproduce the correct lighting of a scene. Hue by itself can not do this.
In order to understand value better it is a good exercise to now and then paint a complete scene in black and white. This is far from a waste of time. Aside from being quite nice a black and white painting gives you the training in seeing values which you can not do without if you are going to become a good painter.
The setup of a still-life, for example, proceeds as follows:
* Objects – Choose a number of objects of varying values, ie, from white all the way to black. Arrange these objects in a pleasing composition. You may actually make a few small sketches so you can see how your composition will look on a flat surface. Remember, the main purpose of this exercise is to learn how to visually separate the value from the hue. This does not come naturally and is a skill to be learned.
* Lighting – Use a bulb of at least 150 watt to light up your composition. Place the light slightly higher than the composition off to the right or left and at a 45 degree angle. You can move the light around a bit to see which situation gives you the most interesting lights and darks. Make sure there are also a few shadows present.
When painting you should stand as far away from your easel as is comfortably possible. For one, make sure to hold your long-handled brushes towards the end of the handles. The idea is to see the overall canvas so you can easily judge if a particular part of your painting fits correctly in the overall scene. Also adjust the easel so you can paint at about eye-level. This prevails distortion of the objects you observe and paint.
From here on we go through the four phases of the painting process:
(1) Drawing the scene – In this exercise I would suggest drawing directly on the canvas with a brush, say, a no. 4 filbert. You do this with a neutral mixture of black and white. The important thing in this phase is to get the geometry of the entire scene correct.
(2) Blocking in – In this phase we paint the large areas without paying attention to the details. Just make sure you keep the correct geometry and the correct value. Judging the values of the colored objects is the point of the exercise. So spend some quality time on this. Squinting may be helpful for most people. Start with the darkest values and then the lightest. After that you can fill all the in-between values of the remaining large areas that are part of the scene.
(3) Shaping – Then you look at every large shape you just filled in and refine the values within that shape. This will force you to look a little closer and harder to see these variations. At the same time you try to model all the shapes as best as you can. The purpose is to (1) create the correct geometry and (2) the correct value distribution. We are still paying paying attention to the actual details. To add the illusion of three-dimensionality, blend the edges where dark and light areas meet. The small area in between will then be the average of the two values. Also make most bridges soft but leave in a few hard ones. And also make use of the concept of lost edges.
(4) Details – Now is the time to put in the details. This includes the highlights. It is a good idea to reserve the whitest white for your highlights. For example, if your scene includes a white bowl, do not use your whitest paint but something a little darker. This way, there is still the opportunity for you to add visible highlights to the bowl.
But remember, learning to see the values on colored objects is the main point of the exercise. So spend a significant amount of time on observing, mixing, comparing, and finally applying these different values.