Art Composition: The Expression of Light and Dark Values

The following is a guest blog post on art composition from Artists Network University instructor Lucy Barber, who has a new online course on drawing and shading (click here to learn more and register!).

Close your eyes and imagine a moonlit night…

For a time when I lived in Maine I drove back and forth from New York, where I would visit family. On one of those trips I was nearing home late on a Sunday night, driving along an easy stretch of road that was rising and dipping in the landscape. It was dark, the full moon straight ahead in the north about midway up in the sky. There were no streetlights, and although my car headlights were on, only the moon was lighting my way on the road. Because it was late there were no cars in sight behind or in front of me, and none coming from the opposite direction. A beautiful sight, navy dark sky, darker shapes of the trees against the sky, and the landscape that was just a bit lighter in value than the darkest darks of the trees. The moon of course was the brightest–indirect light from the sun, intense luminosity throwing ambient light onto the landscape.

I wanted to get a sight of this without the car headlights, to see this landscape lighted only by moonlight. So for about 10 seconds I shut off the lights and drove by moonlight; the road rising ahead, a ribbon of middle-value light possessing a luminosity all its own. With closed eyes I now see the image as though it was yesterday!

That scene in front of me was predominantly on the darker end of a black and white value scale, with the lightest light being the moon and some reflections of its light on the roadway. All the remaining values are in close relationship to each other, creating a strong cohesiveness to the “composition” as well as an illusion of a dark ambient light in a moonlit landscape.

Create an Effective Art Composition | Lucy Barber, ArtistsNetwork.com

“Susan Wading” (charcoal on paper, 25×38) by Lucy Barber

I’m thinking about this because it’s the light and dark values in relationship to each other and the simplified massing of values that play such an important role in a composition’s design. In addition, those light and dark value relationships impact the quality of light and “luminosity” in a work, as well as strengthening an illusion of space, atmosphere and volume in the forms.

Create an Effective Art Composition

In order to create an effective composition, it’s important to minimize breaking up value masses. If your composition is limited to four or five values, the simplified value masses hold the design together like an elegant puzzle, with all value shapes playing a role. This is also important when drawing a simple form, such as a sphere. You first want to see the simplified value shapes: the lighted side of the sphere, the shaded side of the sphere, and the cast shadow. At the outset, you can draw the shaded side of the sphere and the cast shadow as one big shape, then work selectively on subtle gradations from the lighted side to the shaded side and cast shadow. This will help maintain the illusion of volume, form and light. Too much breaking up of the value masses with jumpy transitions in the sphere and cast shadow will actually flatten the form.

Art composition tips | Stone Breaker, Le Raincy by Georges Seurat, ArtistsNetwork.com

“Stone Breakers, Le Raincy” (1879-1881; Conte crayon, 12×15) by Georges Seurat

If you look at two examples of Georges Seurat’s drawings here you see a landscape on the left and on the right a portrait of a woman intensely focusing on her activity. In the landscape I see five values. If you look at the lighter areas of the buildings and how that same value carries through to other places in the composition–to the lighted areas of the ground plane where the man is raking and in the middle ground right beneath the buildings–you can see how those same values unify the lower two-thirds of the composition. Likewise, the darkest shapes and their placement, again in the lower two-thirds of the composition, work in tandem with the lighter shapes to create a beautiful unity. The values in the sky gradate upwards from light to darker, a reflection of the values in the lower part of the composition. Look at how elegantly Seurat has created a sense of volume, space and light with simplified value shapes!

Art composition tips | Stone Breaker, Le Raincy by Georges Seurat, ArtistsNetwork.com

“Embroidery (The Artist’s Mother)” (1882-1883; Conte crayon) by Georges Seurat

In the portrait above I see four, maybe five values. The lightest area is very small, much like the moonlit landscape I describe above. The next darker areas, the light on her nose, forehead, and top of her head, also take up a small area proportionally to the whole composition. This creates a clear area of strong light and dark contrast, drawing our eyes to the central subject, an intimate composition of a woman intent on an activity. This is a beautiful example of unified value masses, letting some edges disappear as we move from one shape to the next, drawing our eye to a clear area of focus.

Register for Lucy’s class, Drawing Mastery: Shading, today!

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