One of my favorite sayings about art is: “Color gets the glory and value does the work.” Most of us love color. We’re drawn to it hoping to accomplish something expressive in our paintings. However, if the value structure (the relative lightness and darkness) is wrong, all the pretty colors housed in our pastel cases won’t work, and the painting will fall short. If you’re one of the fortunate painters that has a keen eye for value—congratulations! If, on the other hand, you’re among the many that work diligently analyzing value ranges, I have a couple of tips that might help.
First, convert your reference to a value scale. If you’re working with photo reference, you can digitally convert it to a gray scale and remove all traces of color. This will instantly show you the value relationships of all the individual elements in the scene. Another option, if you have a color photograph, is to scan it into your computer and then convert it to gray scale or go down to your local copy center and use one of the better copy machines. This isn’t as accurate as converting your own digital files but still serves a useful purpose. Remember that any photographic reference has its limitations; value ranges are never exact to what the human eye is capable of seeing. Shadows are often extremely dark and lights get blown out. So use these black-and-white representations as a generalization.
Second, when you’re working from life, employ a piece of red plastic. Red has its limitations but serves well for most outdoor situations. The majority of landscapes are saturated with green, blue, and gray, allowing the red plastic to neutralize the color and producing a monochromatic image in appearance. When painting in the Southwest, which has bright reds and oranges, green plastic is useful. Holding this up and scrutinizing the scene, as well as your painting, will help remind you of the relative value range. This allows us to use all the color we wish without compromising the structural form. For travel, I clip a square of red plastic onto a plastic viewer (see photo). These viewers are available commercially. The versatile “Picture Perfect 3-in-1 Plus” viewer can be found at www.pictureperfectviewfinder.com.
Though far from 100 percent accurate, these exercises serve as helpful tools in removing the stimulation of color, and have helped many a value-challenged artist produce strong sound work. With practice, you’ll acquire the ability to intuitively access value. In the meantime, “seeing red” can really help.
Check out my latest “Pastel Pointers” column in the May/June issue of The Pastel Journal.