Pastel Pointers | A Matter of Contrast

pastel landscape by richard mckinley

A small painting done on location the day after visiting the St Louis Art Museum. To better portray the luminosity of the scene, I purposely kept the value scale high.

I was recently reminded of the power of “contrast” within a painting while visiting the Saint Louis Art Museum. A group of us were there to view the Monet exhibit of three of his water lily panels that had not been exhibited together in more than 30 years. While waiting to enter the exhibit, we enjoyed features of the permanent collection. It was during this walk about that I became aware of the repeated representation of one of the tenets of my approach to the landscape. I like to advocate a higher value key for the representation of shadow masses in the beginning of most landscape paintings. I refer to this as “The Value Scale of the Landscape”. While the still life and portrait painter commonly work in what is referred to as a chiaroscuro scale from pure black to pure white, made popular by Caravaggio and Rembrandt, most landscape painters need to adjust their shadow masses to a higher value to represent the luminosity of natural outdoor lighting. A common value scale, using 0 as black and 10 as white, has middle-value as 5. This is what most of us were taught when first learning to identify the relative lightness or darkness of a given area and it is a good point of reference for learning. The problem with the scale is that most students then associate dark to 0, middle-value to 5, and light to 10 no matter the painting situation. Depending on the scene, this can lead to an over-exaggerated portrayal of value and an artificial rendering. To help to alleviate this tendency, a landscape value scale of 3 to 10, with middle-value falling at value 6.5, will set an artist up to better portray the most common illumination of the landscape. It is important to clarify that I am not saying that a landscape doesn’t have darker accents than value 3. I am simply setting a benchmark for the major dark masses at nothing darker than value 3. This allows for the addition of darker accents within the dark masses creating a heightened representation of depth. The limitations of photography have also added to the overly dark shadow portrayal in many landscape paintings. Most photographers prefer to retain detail in the highlight areas of a scene and thus compromise the shadows by exposing and printing for the lights. Since photography, until recently, was incapable of retaining clarity in both, painters that depended on photography mistakenly portrayed shadows darker than they would naturally appear.
Utilizing a 3 to 10 value scale for the landscape also helps to control one of the innate tendencies we all have: we identify things visually by contrast. Without a contrast of value or color, nothing would be recognizable. Everything would appear the same. Science has proven that once we identify a contrast, our tendency is to associate it to the extreme within that visual space. If there is nothing darker than value 5 within a given scene, it will be associated to dark, and so on. This is where the beginner gets into trouble. Once dark (or light for that matter) is identified, it is easy to make it too extreme. With time, painters become more sensitive to lighting situations and this becomes less of an issue. Until then, I would encourage the landscape painter to move the scale up. Painters from the Barbizon throughout the Impressionist period frequently worked in a higher scale. The magnificent water lily panels by Monet demonstrate this point well.

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