Accentuate Bright Light | Compress Your Value Scale

How to Paint Light Brilliantly

by Michael Chesley Johnson

Landscape painters often struggle to paint the heat of the sun, the glow of the moon or the silvered edges of backlit clouds, as pointed out in the  October 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Most often, the problem comes down to poor planning of values, but sometimes color usage is an issue, too. I’m approaching my discussion of these topics from the standpoint of oil painting, but most of the theory can be applied to pastel and other opaque media.

Compress and Weight Values

Most important in creating the illusion of bright light is value. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s surprising how quickly values can get away from you, especially when you’re working in oil. Any time you adjust a color mixture by adding more paint, you’re also adjusting the value, whether you realize it or not. To avoid this problem, I premix samples of the values I plan to use in a painting. Then I keep these samples on the side of my palette as touchstones against which to check my other mixtures.

When painting landscapes, especially en plein air, I do two things before I touch brush to canvas. First, I visualize the scene as just a few large value masses. Second, I try to reduce the number of values to no more than four: a dark, a middark, a midlight and a light. Imagine taking a 10-step value scale and compressing it into four steps. Each step jumps over a wide range of values, resulting in lots of contrast (A). To help me with this process, I may make a rough thumbnail sketch (B).



The distance between steps doesn’t have to be even. You can, for example, put three of the four values closer to the dark end of the scale, with just one value at the lighter end (C). If the dark masses occupy most of the real estate of your canvas, you’ll have a low-key painting with a little light.


You can use this type of arrangement to help you paint the illusion of bright light. An evenly divided scale gives you more contrast between each of the four value masses (D), but gives the light value less impact than a weighted scale (E).

Click here to find this article and more in the October 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


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