Improve Your Drawing With Value Contrasts

  Sugar Shack
(permanent marker, 5¼x7)

There is a simple way of improving the readability and impact of your drawings by a purposeful alternation of value contrasts. It’s called
counterchange, and here’s how it works:

Imagine a telephone pole lying on the ground. As you’d expect, it would be the same color and value from end to end. But if you imagine it in its normal position, upright and seen against the sky as well as against the darker ground, the pole would appear to change in value from top to bottom.

Seen against the sky, it would be a dark silhouette with no detail. Lower down, with the darks and midtones of the landscape behind it, it would appear relatively lighter, and you would be able to make out details and colors within the silhouette.

That’s the theoretical part of counterchange. To put it into practice is just as simple: When you have a shape with a long axis that crosses light and dark pieces, grade the value of the shape from light to dark so that it contrasts with the background. That’s it!

Counterchange is a handy technique, and a great way to improve readability, as you can see in my marker drawing Sugar Shack (above). Because I had only black and white to work with, I had to be rather obvious in forcing the value of the tree limbs as they came against the light and dark pieces behind them.

Still, the resulting pattern is much closer to the way we actually see than if I had made the limbs one value from top to bottom. And the “checkerboard” pattern of black and white adds interest to this simple subject.

Points to remember:

1.  Counterchange is a visual phenomenon, and a function of the way our eyes adjust to extreme value contrasts. You can approximate it by setting your digital camera to “auto-exposure” and pointing it at a tree against the sky. Try it!

2.  Once you’ve been alerted to the idea of counterchange, you’ll begin to see it out in nature.

3.  To express the excitement of the visual world in your drawings, you need to “excite” your paper with contrasts of all kinds. Using the “checkerboard” of counterchange is a good way to do that.

4.  Remember that you can alter the value of any piece in your drawing, according to your intentions and the needs of your drawing. You don’t have to make your telephone pole one solid midtone just because it appears that way in your photo-reference.

5.  When you start to use counterchange in your work, you needn’t be as obvious about it as I was, of necessity, in Sugar Shack. With a full value-range, you can be much more subtle and still get your message across.

To learn Teitsworth’s five tips for working with permanent markers, click here.

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


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