Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Composition - why tonal values and contrast are important

A walk on the Downs - a work in progress coloured pencil on Arches HP, 10" x 8" copyright images and text by Katherine Tyrrell
"Tonal values are critical. The lights and darks contribute more to the success of a painting's composition than any other factor, including color. In fact your painting will really only be as good as the tonal values" Greg Albert, The Simple Secret to Better Panting
Time and time again when entering a gallery, the painting which stands out from the crowd is the one which has a strong design and value pattern. Exactly the same thing happens when you sit viewing slides entered for a competition. Or if you visit an artist's website or shop/auction site and view thumbnail images in an online gallery. What you see initially is the abstracted pattern . Everything else - including all the detail - is subordinate in terms of impact. What gets really interesting is that when you have learned how to extract values from the morass of colour and complexity of shapes that you see everyday, then you start to see the world in design terms and paintable pictures. It's actually very entertaining - if a tad distracting when you're driving! What is value?
Value - An element of art that refers to luminance or luminosity — the lightness or darkness of a color. This is important in any polychromatic image, but it can be more apparent when an image is monochromatic, as in many drawings, woodcuts, lithographs, and photographs. This is commonly the case in much sculpture and architecture too. ArtLex
What is a value scale? A value scale is a way of describing how values change between black and white. You can construct a value scale in any number of ways - and people have. One of the most well known is the Denman Ross nine step value scale. This was devised in 1907. You can see that one of the terms he uses to describe the different values is ' higlight' - which is one which artists use all the time. Some artists recommend locating your darkest dark and lightest light prior to starting a painting. If you use the right value, the colour will tend to read true to the value pattern of your subject no matter what it is. What are value intervals? A value interval is the space inbetween a change in value. The above chart has regular (ie equal) value intervals. Greg Albert and others recommend having unequal value intervals in a painting. This means not all areas relating to a particular value are same shape or size as that relating to other values. A good way of remembering this is Greg Albert's 'mostly, some and a bit' formula which is explained in his book. What is a value pattern? Cosmo (my Somali cat) kindly obliged by posing and can be seen here modelling an example of a value pattern! ;) Note this pattern has three values in shapes which are an unequal size. The value pattern:
  • enables you to see that this is a furry cat even though you only have shape definition and values to use in identifying what you are looking at.
  • Colours could be changed - but so long as the values remained the same you'd know it was a cat.
  • This value pattern has a:
    • dominant value - dark chocolate colour
    • middle value - milk chocolate colour
    • least dominant value - pale peach colour.
What helps to make value patterns work? Value is a critical element in the design of a painting. Value also needs to be related and integrated with the other elements and principles of design and composition. Here are some ways in which you can design value patterns which make a painting attractive and/or interesting to the eye:
    • Lesson #1 for those trying to see values is that if you squint you will see value patterns - although squinting tends to reveal the pattern rather than the true value. It enables you to lose all the detail and to some extent the colour leaving just the values. So squint when you're looking for a strong design (in a landscape/still life/portrait) and squint when you're assessing whether your work has a strong value pattern.
    • Lesson #2 only applies to those of us who wear glasses. Take your glasses off and look again at your subject or painting. You'll lose the detail so it isn't competing for your attention and will have a simpler view of subject or painting.
  • focus on the big shapes and the abstract pattern of flat values. Start by identifying three, four or five shapes of different size and unequal weight (in the light/dark sense). Simple works best. Unequal numbers can work better than even. Start big and simple, work towards smaller shapes and more detail. If you start with detail you'll often lose the value pattern.
  • let what interested you inform decisions about the weight and balance of values. The abstract pattern can be interesting in itself - but the reasons behind why selected a specific subject can often be different. Integrating the two helps to make a painting work better.
    • Value creates mood and contrast creates drama - see this example by Rembrandt
  • design or find lighting arrangements which make the value pattern more interesting. You don't have to work with what presents at face value. You can:
    • choose to work plein air at different times of the day.
    • set up lighting arrangements to work indoors and from life. (see How to create a lightbox)
    • move your subject around to find the light which gives the most attractive composition.
    • Rembrandt lighting is often used in portraiture
  • organise transitions in value according to how light behaves
  • use a monochromatic thumbnail sketch to identify alternative ways of using values in relation to the big shapes. You can change or switch values around - if the background is light try making it dark.
An example - plein air sketching As anybody who has sketched plein air will know, the clouds move and the light changes! The trick in creating a sketch which works well is to wait until the light works or to plan to be in place when you have a good chance of experiencing light which helps with value patterns design. One approach is to work early in the morning or late in the day when the sun is low and produces interesting shadows. In the middle of the day, one often needs to wait a while and observe how the light moves in order to see what might work well. Making a quick thumbnail sketch of what attracted you to the way the light falls helps enormously with completing a painting. You can also make quick thumbnails of how the light changes while painting. It maybe be that you'll see something better as the day progresses.
  • try introducing a strong value contrast. This works especially well in identifying a focus point.
  • use one dominant value. Assessments will need to be made about the relative balance with other values.
  • weight values to one end or the other of the value range
    • if very light values dominate then the painting is referred to as 'high key' - a few low key marks will draw the eye
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862 James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) Oil on canvas; 83 7/8 x 42 1/2 in. (213 x 107.9 cm) Salon des Refus├ęs, 1863 National Gallery of Art, Washington, Harris Whittemore Collection 1943.6.2
    • dominance by very dark values creates a 'low key' painting - high key marks immediately draw the eye
Venetian Interior, c. 1880-82 John Singer Sargent, (American, 1856-1925) oil on canvas, 26 7/8 X 34 3/16 in. (63.3 X 86.8 cm) Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
  • always consider the background value behind a subject.
    • People sometimes start a painting with the subject matter which interests them - and then wonder what to do about the background. This is a 'bad habit' which tends to be very common among artists who are starting out and/or have little formal training and/or skipped some of the chapters in the art instruction book. It's important to know why it's a bad habit and why it actively works against a painting being made as effective as possible
    • Background have values as well as shapes and colours. If you subscribe to the notion that to hava painting with impact you have to design a painting, then the background MUST be considered as part of the overall equation - of the balance of values, shapes, colours etc - from the very beginning. Its value (and shape and colour) will affect everything else in the painting. Adding a background in at the end and designing it to work well is an incredibly difficutlt thing to do which even experienced artists struggle with.
  • know and understand the values produced by your materials. It's especially helpful to know what is the value of your different paints/pastels/pencils.
    • if your paint dries lighter (eg as frequently happens in watercolour) then you need to know what value it will create
    • Very often pastel artists will sort their tray of pastels out into a value based arrangement. Thus value dominates the arrangements and then colour.
    • Try inspecting how experienced artists lay out their palettes - you'll often notice that it has a value bias.
Here are some websites and/or blog posts by people who have emphasised the importance of value to composition. Composition: tools to help find and assess value and tone This section repeats part of Composition and Design - finding and creating a focal point (24 January 2008) and is repeated here for the sake of completeness and this post being read out of sequence.
  • the Val-U-Viewer value finder. An instant hit with all the artists when introduced to it by sally Strand. You can read about by clicking the first link. You can also see one on my website. Red acetate is really very useful!
  • Thumbnails:
    • thumbnail sketches in 3 values (or 5 values) - see Composition and Design - Resources for Artists for tips on how to do this as the blog post about how to do this comes later!
    • reducing a digital image of your work down to a thumbnail size often provides a check of whether the value pattern is registering. This will also be covered in the post which follows.
  • Notan:
  • Greyscale:
    • enables you to see the value pattern in monochromatic form (black, gres, white). This helps people who have difficulty in seeing values because they get distracted by colour. It also helps you to learn about the values of different colours.
    • Composition - using PS Elements to help with design provides a brief overview of how to use greyscale in PS Elements
    • Read about greyscale on Wikipedia
  • Working with Values:
    • Adobe Photoshop Elements enables you to reduce a reference photo (or a scan of your work so far) to up to 8 values using the cutout tool. This is what I've been using for my notan work - and the blog post on that will follow very soon! I've been using it since version 3 and I'm now on version 5! For a basic description of how to use it see Composition - using PS Elements to help with design
    • Artellmedia provide a software programme called Artworks Basic - which seeks to aid composition and provides scope to determine what a digital picture looks like in different numbers of values. It have a sophisticated way of showing you where the different values are. Only listed as being suitable for computers up to XP and I've not yet tried to load it on my new Vista Laptop yet - but the originators don't think it'll be a problem.
Links: Making a Mark Composition Project - see below for earlier posts relating to this project Copyright - all rights reserved in relation to text and images belonging to the artist


  1. Wonderful post again! I have been working my paintings with shape first then color. Now I'm going to work shape first, value second then color. Thanks!

  2. this really is another excellent post!

    as you know I love PS for all this kind of thinking through - and for images that exist in their own right.

    as for organising tonally - I do this with my pastels.

    I have a fantastic set of plastic drawers that click securely shut, about 18 inches high, with a carrying handle.

    There are 6 drawers and each is divided into 3 sections - perfect!

    I have it divided into 1 blues, 2greens, 3 reds/reddish oranges, 4browns, 5 black and white and 6yellows/paler oranges. The three sections divide them up neatly into dark/medium/light.

    They are capable of holding quite a lot of pastels :)

    The drawers come out so I can spread them round me when I work. Being totally right brained I'd never put them neatly back into their little grooves in the rather posh boxes you can get - but this sort of organisation is more intuitive and works for me :)

    Being from B&Q diy store it only cost me £12 - put a label on saying Art ''*** (insert name of choice) and you'd be paying 5 times the price! It's very smart looking as well

  3. This AM I used PS to remove the color from an image before e-mailing it to the patron. I couldn't tell if it was too dark or light except to do that!

    Very useful post.

  4. I found my way here from vivian's blog, paintings prints and stuff, and am so glad.

    I work in the fiber/textile/art quilt world and the value finder you describe is similar to a tool quilters use called a Ruby Beholder (a smallish piece of red plexiglass). I have found it useful also to have a green viewfinder especially when working primarily with red tones. Using the red filter on red and other warm tones sometimes creates the impression of turning everything "white" whereas a green filter serves the same purpose of revealing value without the odd impression of washed-out color. And if I'm having trouble working out the muddle of the middle tones, I sometimes use both filters to figure out what's what. Color can be very tricky...

    Thanks so much for the fabulous posts (and for featuring the Whistler painting. He's one of my favorite painters. When he was good, he was very, very good -- and his use of color was impeccable.)

  5. You are right, Katherine, I'm planning reading time! If fact I have to save this whole, fascinating post until I finish the M.W. Dow book.

    I found a wonderful strong cardboard carton when I was putting out the rubbish yesterday and salvaged it for a still life studio - then I couldn't remember where, months ago, I had seen instructions for constructing such a light box. And of course, here it is, in your post!

  6. Katherine, thank you for this very interesting post. It inspired me (finally) to begin to explore a value-related issue I've been thinking about for some time with the help of PS. I've written a post about it and linked to your post here.

  7. You've done a wonderful service with this series on composition. It is providing a very helpful consolidation of many different things I've read over the years. Thank you for bringing your talents to this subject.

    I put a link to your series in my blog. I'm not sure if my address is shown to you automatically with my signature in a previous comment.

    If not here it is:

  8. Katherine! I was going to just catch up on missed posts in silence, but I just had to tell you that that work in progress is absolutely stunning. The dapples . . . sigh. Gorgeous. I think it's possibly my absolute favorite of yours yet. Is it going to an exhibition? Or will it be for sale?

  9. Thanks Maggie - It's probably going for a try-out as a pastel next. Plus acquiring one or maybe two companions. Then I'll think about exhibitions and sales.....

    Thanks to everybody else as well for your comments which are always very much appreciated.

    Anon. - interesting to hear about the Ruby Beholder. I've never seen or heard of one - but it makes complete sense that other creative areas should be using the red plexiglass trick too. Nice to meet another Whistler fan too.

    Robyn - I can't wait to see your new still life box!

    Lena - yours is a very interesting post and one for my collection of posts about composition by other bloggers - to be published as a blog post soon.


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