Make the Most Out of Your Value Sketches

Get Acquainted with Shapes and Values

Use these exercises to develop your “artist’s eye” and make the most of your value sketches.

By Bill Teitworth

You really do need a midtone—50 percent gray—to do the subject matter justice in a rendering such as Study for Fenceline. But if you accept the challenge of limiting yourself to black and white, you'll learn important things about a kind of raw graphic power that will carry over into your other work.

Probably the most important step you’ll take as an aspiring painter is to learn to translate the forms and volumes of the visual world into flat pieces of value, and to arrange those pieces into effective patterns. This special way of seeing and thinking—you might call it the artist’s eye or design sense—is acquired gradually, through repetition, like any complex skill.

The following are two exercises I use with my painting students to iron out some of that complexity and to speed up the learning process a bit. With your first efforts, I suggest you rely on your own good taste and preferences as you compare one sketch with another to judge their effectiveness. I will say, though, that at some point you should get some feedback from a trusted teacher, a sophisticated critique group, or even a drawing forum in an online artists’ community such as WetCanvas.com.

Here’s the first exercise—the basic introductory sketch—to help you create and use shapes freely.

1. Sketch the basic values

Most painters use some version of the value sketch early in the planning process for each new picture. The purpose is to develop and test various (usually two or three) arrangements of the main value masses—lights, midtones and darks—before selecting one arrangement to be used in the final painting.

All you need for this is your sketchbook and a broad drawing medium, such as a 6B graphite pencil or a soft black layout pencil, capable of making both gray and dark tones. I like the 4B carbon pencil, too.

2. Squint at your subject

You begin by squinting at your subject or your reference photo. Squinting eliminates most of the distracting detail and small value changes. You’ll notice that the white or light-valued areas stand out clearly, while the rest of your visual field is reduced to a midtone gray with darker sections.

3. Draw your picture-space

To make the drawing, first pencil in a postcard-size rectangle on your sketchbook page. This is your picture-space. If you’re doing the value sketch as a study for a painting, make the proportions of your rectangle match the proportions of the paper or canvas you’ll be using.

After creating this initial line drawing, I applied a gray tone over everything but the white shapes. I went very lightly on the linework, particularly around the white areas.

4. Identify light shapes and put in midtone gray

In your picture-space, pencil in the main shapes of your subject, paying special attention to the shape and placement of the white pieces. Then lay a solid gray tone over everything in the space except those white shapes, as I did in Farm on Lake Road (above).

5. Add the dark shapes

The final step is to develop the dark pattern, putting in good dark shapes for local values (essential values without any shadow patterns from texture or lighting), details and added contrast with the whites in your areas of interest. Your resulting drawing will have three values: the white of the paper, a midtone gray and the dark areas you just added

Note: You’re not aiming for mechanical perfection in applying these values; some minor variations will naturally occur. Just shoot for a definite midtone and a definite dark.

This second exercise—the two-value drawing—is a bit like piecing together a puzzle, so I like to do these drawings from sketches or photo references rather than from life. You’ll need your sketchbook, an HB (medium) pencil and an ordinary black marker, the kind with an angled or chisel tip.

In this step, I placed all the darks, completing the three-note value scale of Farm on Lake Road (above; carbon pencil, 4x5.5). There’s quite a bit of variation in the midtone—you might almost call this a four-value scale—but even so, I’m careful to preserve the important midtones of the foreground, and the bare trees in the middle distance.

1. Create a line drawing

To start, lay out your picture-space, and then do a simple line drawing of your subject in pencil.

2. Place the dark values

Next, with your chisel-tip marker, lay in the dark values of your subject. All whites and light tones will be the untouched white of your paper.

3. Push midtones up or down

There will be no midtones in your drawing, so when you identify a midtone area in your reference, you’ll need to decide whether to push it down to the black or up to the white.

If your design includes many small white shapes within dark areas, you’ll need to be careful both in your pencil drawing and when you’re inking in each area with the marker.

By the time you’ve finished drawing a passage like this, there will be no doubt in your mind that you’re no longer drawing a form (a barn), but you’re making a mosaic-like pattern of black and white shapes that together create the illusion of a barn. And you’ll be seeing with your artist’s eye.

Working within self-imposed limitations, as you do when you restrict yourself to two values, often results in surprising discoveries. Later, when you go back to a fuller range of values, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the possibilities of that range and a much greater fluency in using it.

Being able to visualize the world as flat puzzle pieces is a skill that requires practice. The exercises I’ve described here have helped many of my students get on the fast track to acquiring that skill. I’ve seen it happen with them, and I think you’ll find that it can work for you.

This Sky at MacLain’s Farm (watercolor, 4x7.5) is typical of the things I bring back from a sketching expedition. Note that I borrowed the foreground pattern of curved shapes and recycled it into Farm on Lake Road. The point of these exercises is to enable you to create and use shapes freely.


Bill Teitsworth is a workshop instructor and signature member of the National Watercolor Society and the 2006 winner of the Milford and Patricia Zornes Award. See his website at www.etstudioart.com.

This article appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, which is available for order as a digital download. Click here to learn more.

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