Step-by-Step Demonstration: Composing With Values

Determine tonal variations by using cut paper to establish an effective design.

Masters of the past were more interested in creating a pleasing composition—a varied, harmonious relationship of the parts to the whole—than in the perfect representation and delineation of every object. There are many aspects to composition. In this article we look at the two-dimensional abstract tonal patterns or values that form the substructure of a compelling image.

Value is the range of black and white tones that underlie color; to visualize this concept, it’s helpful to think of a black-and-white photograph. The building blocks of value are the abstract spotting or patterning of nonrepresentational dark and light lines or shapes. In analyses of masterworks in drawing and painting, we find this abstracted spotting of value, designed to be pleasing and interesting in its own right, apart from subject matter.

Tonal variation exercise
To help my Atelier students better appreciate the idea of value patterns, I have them do a simple exercise. They set up a still life and, using only four or five values of toned paper, they translate the myriad values seen in life to the few essential in art. The success of each piece is determined by how efficiently the artist distills the value changes—while retaining the spirit of the original setup. You can try this three-step tonal variation exercise as well, which can be applied to the study of masterworks or any other subject matter.
(See images along the right-hand side off your screen  for two step-by-step tonal variation exercises.)

1. Thumbnail sketches
Begin by setting up a still life, and then create several thumbnail sketches of the value composition. To better discern the big values, either squint or look though a piece of red Plexiglas.
      Next, mass in a few shapes using charcoal or graphite, establishing your scale of four or five progressive values. In this project it’s necessary to do a lot with a little; by juxtaposing tones it’s possible to give the illusion of a larger value range. This process of placing one value next to another to accentuate or moderate a value or color is called simultaneous contrast. These thumbnail sketches enable you to try multiple solutions for this value composition and to determine the overall effectiveness of each tonal pattern.

2. Line drawing
For the next step, do a line drawing to establish the proportion of the shapes in the composition. (This drawing is used as a template onto which the toned paper can be placed.)
      After that, take a piece of tracing paper and trace the drawing; then cut out the individual shapes as templates for the toned paper. Then use the numbers 1 through 4 or 5 to label each of the drawing’s different shapes (which represent the different tones of paper), with 1 being white (or the lightest value) and 4 or 5 being black (or the darkest) in your value scale.

3. Cut-paper composition
Next, cut each toned paper in the appropriate shapes with a scissors or a craft knife. Then either tape or glue the individual shapes to a separate sheet of paper, piecing them together like a puzzle. The resulting tonal pattern in the completed piece should feel like an elegant version of the more nuanced, original still life setup.

Doing more with less
Using just a few values of cut paper to create a whole composition is a difficult problem that can be solved many different ways; there’s no one right answer. The logic of simplicity—doing more with less—lies at the heart of the best artwork. When you’ve mastered the concepts behind this assignment, you’ll be well on your way to understanding a key component in value composition.

Juliette Aristides, a classically trained artist, is an instructor at the Classical Atelier at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Washington. Author of Classical Drawing Atelier (Watson-Guptill, 2006) and Classical Painting Atelier (Watson-Guptill, 2007), she exhibits her work at John Pence Gallery in San Francisco.

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