Value for Value: A Primer

In a normal value range, the values range from the white of the paper (the lightest value) to the darkest dark (the absence of light, black) with a middle range in between. Most often, the middle values predominate, with lights and darks as accents. In a high-key value range, the darks are not very dark. The range of values is from the lightest light to a middle value. The middle value darks are usually accents that throw the lights in relief.

In a low-key value range, the middle value of the normal range is the lightest light. All the other values are accordingly darker, moving toward the darkest darks. Once I have figured out the lightest lights and the darkest darks, I know that the rest of the picture will be of middle value. The way I work, light and dark are the major players; color is in the lineup. (He’s a dependable player, but he’s not always batting clean-up.) My first step (and the first step for many artists) is to execute a value sketch. The idea of this sketch is to block in the areas of dark and light with pencil, charcoal, or watercolor. If the composition “reads,” in black and white, then the painting will read well in color, too. In the course of working on a painting, it helps to consult the value sketch-so you can protect the lights with mask, for instance, and build up the darks by glazing again and again.

Achieving darks in watercolor can take time. Remember that watercolor dries lighter than it appears when wet. You don’t have to apply the darks in one wash. By glazing one layer after another, you can build up rich darks. But if you use too many layers, the result can appear labored. Load your brush and lay the paint down quickly. I recommend three passes for large, dark areas. And I keep the brush active, so the pigment doesn’t go on evenly but instead shows surface variations.

If your darks become too dark, you can alter the value by adding gesso to the colors you used for the wash. You can use the gesso-watercolor combination as if it were gouache. I sometimes add gesso to the final glaze, in order to give the transparent darks a milky, opaque effect. A word of caution, however: You shouldn’t use your good watercolor brushes for applying gouache. And keep the water and palette separate, as well.

“I tell my students I never make mistakes, just adjustments,” says Dale Laitinen. “I use what is happening on the paper and I adjust accordingly.” A graduate in fine arts from San Jose State University, Laitinen spent eight years as a long haul trucker on the highways of the American West before turning to painting full-time. He lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, where he maintains his studio. “In California and the West, the environment itself is a species of sculpture, an earth work. The landscape reveals the patterns under earth. It makes for a different aesthetic than you’d find in the East, where green grass covers the contours of the land,” he says.

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