Start with the Value Benchmarks


Middle gray placed on a darker and lighter mass. In one it becomes a light, in the other a dark.

We have all heard the old painting adage, ”Start with the darkest dark.” In painting media where the individual pigments will mix together, like pastel and oil, it’s easy to get muddy value/color relationships when this adage is not followed. Dark areas rarely have intense colors and when painted thinly, allow brighter, more intense lights to be placed on top without becoming chalky. The problem with this concept is that most painters lose sight of the larger value relationships within the compositional design of the painting. By focusing on individual dark accents instead of the larger value masses, the painting can become fragmented and contain overstated value ranges, creating an artificial appearance.

Generalizing a composition into three or four large shapes and associating an average value to those masses allows us to retain value integrity. All of us are capable of seeing too much and this can easily get in the way of representing the core relationships of the subject matter. We do it with details, color nuances, and light and dark values. Like the old saying goes, “We can’t see the forest for the trees.” When a general value is associated to these simple shapes, a benchmark is created that everything else must relate to. Darker and lighter accents will appear in relationship to that general value. This maintains the integrity of the scene as a whole. As an example, if a field in the foreground is averaged value 7, using a value scale with black represented as 0 and white as 10, the darker accents within the field would be value 6 and 5, and the lighter accents would be 8 and 9. The same painting may have a large mass of trees in the middle ground that average value 4, making value 3 and 2 its darker accents and value 5 and 6 its lighter accents. A light in the tree mass would instead be a shadow in the field mass. Without this observation, it is easy to associated extreme values to lights and darks which creates an extended value range within a painting and makes it look artificial.

Doing sketches that represent the simple masses of the scene in advance of a painting and associating a general value to each mass will help to avoid overstated value relationships. Keep the sketch near your painting as a reminder of its value structure. Value masses can also be implemented as an underpainting technique upon which heavier applications of pastel will be placed as the painting progresses. Whichever method you use, understanding the simple shape structure of a painting and the general value of those shape masses will improve your painting’s value structure and lead to a stronger finished work. What is dark in one area can be light in another. It’s all about relationships.


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