Basics: Painting – Understanding Value

The best most accurate painting in the world is merely an interpretation. This is because paint has limitations.

White paint is the brightest that any artist can get, and yet when you look at white paint we are not blinded as we would be if we looked at the sun or a welding arc. Similarly, black paint is as dark as paint can go and yet when we look at it we do not mistake it for the depth of blackness found in a cave.

If we say that real sight has a value range of 1 to 100, (with 1 being the absolute absence of light and 100 being pure white light) then the value range available for paint would be something like 10 to 40.

So, what can the artist do when he needs to represent the world and limitations beyond his control prevent him from doing that?

The artist must translate what he sees or imagines into the value range that is available to him. A good way to begin a painting then, would be to establish the lightest and darkest spots on the canvas first. After your lightest and darkest spots are found you can then make comparisons with all of your other values and build up the range between.

A trick used by almost every artist wishing to get accurate values is the squint method. With natural vision your eyes will dilate to see as much information as they can. When you look at a dark area your eyes will let in more light so you can see better, but since the dilation of your eyes has changed you no longer see the same value difference as you did while looking into the light areas. By squinting your eyes you prevent your eyes from focusing on one specific area and instead see an overall view of the scene before you. This means that your eyes choose an average dilation for both the darks and lights and so you can see more accurate value relationships.

Unfortunately when it comes to paint this means we will have to make hard choices. Sometimes we will not be able to get the exact color we see with our eyes since to make it dark or light enough we will have to sacrifice some of the color’s hue or intensity. This is also why holding up a color in front of a scene to match the color should be used more as a guide than as something to match colors as we will run out of value range long before we can match everything exactly.

Basics: Drawing 3 Learn to Fish

Demonstration Drawing by Harold Speed
Demonstration Drawing by Harold Speed

There’s an often over used saying that states if you give a man a fish it feeds him for a day but if you teach a man to fish it feeds him for a lifetime, but it does makes a point about giving up a stop gap fix in favor of a difficult at first, but permanent solution.

Today we learn to fish.

We already talked about grades and types of graphite pencils in the last post, so we need to spend a little time on paper. For the practice that I suggest any type of paper will do. I use 24lb Xerox inkjet paper I can buy in mega reams of about 750 sheets. I like the smoothness since it is easy to erase, the thickness since it feels good in my hand, the size (8.5 inches by 11 inches) since it is easy to carry around, and that it is acid free, which is a bonus, but choose any bulk paper that suits you.

For more refined drawings, or any drawing that you might want to call a work of art instead of a sketch, get good paper.

So what is good paper?

Good paper is usually thicker than inkjet paper, about 60lb and up. It needs to be acid free, or Ph neutral and the texture needs to be something you are comfortable working on. Is is usually made by companies that specialize in artist paper. A few paper suggestions: Canson Mi-Teintes(I like the back texture better than the front), Canson Ingres (Thinner but still good), Fabriano Ingres, Strathmore 500, and Stonehenge.

If you get a 100% cotton paper then be aware that it will be a very soft paper and the it may scuff or be damaged when you erase, so be sure you plan out your drawing before you start on a soft paper.

Next we’ll get to some line drawing exercises. These are great to do when you can’t think of anything else to do or when you are warming up for a drawing session.

You’ve probably heard people say they can’t draw a straight line, and probably even some artists, but to really know your craft you should be able to draw a reasonably straight line in any direction of the length that you desire.

Start by placing two dots horizontally across from each other on your paper a comfortable distance apart, about an inch is good to start out.

Then draw a straight line, without using any straight edge, parallel to the dots starting at one dot and ending at the other. And repeat this four or five times. Then do the same thing, but with vertical dots. (See the examples below.)

hand drawn line exercises

This trains your mind and hand in several ways. It teaches you to how draw lines parallel to each other (which is more useful than it sounds), it trains your hand to move in unusual directions, it teaches you to be able to start and stop a line where you want it to, and it will reveal unknown biases of leaning to the right or left compared to an absolutely vertical or horizontal line. (Have you ever seen an ocean horizon that leaned to one side? I bet the artist doesn’t know about their biases.)

Don’t fret too much about this at first since not everything will come together at once, but within in a few days or weeks you should be getting decent results. Mastering these exercises can take years ( I still haven’t mastered them). Also, you will probably find out which movement is easier for you, vertical or horizontal, but make sure you do them equally so you don’t only train your strengths.

As you get better at it, start to place the dots further apart until you can draw a five or six inch line (or longer if you want).

Line drawing exercise

These should be thought of like scales for a musician or lifting weights for an athlete, they aren’t going to be beautiful but they will help you create beauty.

Tomorrow we’ll get to line weight, or hand pressure.

But before I go, I wanted to give you a studio tip. If you do these exercises on a slanted drawing board it will be easier since you won’t have the diminishing perspective to mess you up, and if you draw with your wrist, elbow, or shoulder and not your fingers, you will be able to draw longer and longer lines.

Can You Spot the Difference?

Paintings of hand blown bottle comparison

Or maybe I should have asked, which one looks more real? There is a subtle difference between the two pictures.

While working on this painting of a small glass bottle and some acorns I was having a little trouble. Maybe it’s because I’m fighting a cold, or more likely it’s one of my pitfalls, but I couldn’t figure out why the bottle wasn’t working.

I needed an objective look at it but by this point I had stared at it so long that my brain was refusing to see what was wrong. So I used a great studio trick and took a photo of it to view on my computer. Right away I figured out what the problem was, and yes it turned out to be one of my blind spots, I had increased the contrast between the clear and semi-opaque part of the bottle. I’ve outlined the areas in the photo below.

Painting of a bottle showing areas of too high contrast.

It looks like I will still have to remind myself if something feels off to check the value comparisons, and I might find the culprit.