One of the ways to make headway with a painting you’re stuck on is to reevaluate your tonal values to find a new perspective. In this day and age often taking a photograph of a piece and running it through a greyscale filter can be a great way to discover what to work on next. Michelle Gibbs, director of the online gallery Art2Arts, has shared her thoughts on the importance of tonal value with us to explain why it’s essential to consider it.
The Importance of Tonal Value in Your Artwork
Being an art tutor, artist and director of online art gallery Art2Arts I understand what makes a piece of artwork successful. There are many aspects to teaching painting and in order to create a perfectly balanced artwork, some of the main elements that all artists should know about are line, colour and shape. Lines and shapes could be two or tri-dimensional, free flowing or flat and you need colour to bring a painting to life.
But creating an artwork is more complex than that, we also talk about texture, space and form. Texture is how an artwork may feel if touched, space is the balance between positive and negative areas and form may be tri-dimensional or free flowing and it includes height, width and depth.
There is another aspect that is important to drawing and painting. It is something that many amateur artists struggle to grasp and one of the reasons why paintings fail and it is called ‘value’. Many artists and art tutors are calling value the seventh element of arts. It goes hand in hand with colour and it deals directly with light. How? We understand objects by how light or dark they are therefore ‘value’ is how light or dark something is on a scale of white to black.
As we can’t see the objects without light, subsequently we can’t paint or draw objects without understanding light. Artworks that show a wide range of value from dark to light are the most successful. But in order to create a harmoniously balanced artwork, you may find helpful having a ‘value’ scale so you could easily create highlights and shadows.
A ‘value’ scale goes from 1 to 10 starting with white and finishing with black where the halfway between these extremes is called mid grey. In order to understand this scale, many art tutors recommend practising drawing in pencil, charcoal or graphite without adding colour. Once you mastered the use of value in your drawings, you can start adding colour. Tints are the light values and shades are the dark ones while highlights are the areas where the light hits the objects and the shadows are the areas with no light.
What exactly is the relationship between value and colour? Firstly, every colour has an underlying value and not all colours are equal regarding value. Imagine looking at the colour wheel but with no colour, where would each colour be placed on a ‘value’ scale? Secondly, you can create a value scale for each colour so you can explore the infinite possibilities to use tints and shades to create a balanced artwork.
Colour in Relation to a Value Scale
Studying where each colour can be placed on the value scale can teach artists how to use colours next to each other to bring contrast and depth to their painting. For example, different hues can be placed on the same value scale so if you use them next to each other, they will create limited contrast so the artwork will lack depth. On the other hand, if you use different values of the same hues, your painting will be brought to life as the objects within will be better defined.
The understanding of value and the relationship between value and colour is not only useful for traditional art or for painting objects, but can be useful for abstract paintings too. No matter what style or subject artists chose, they still need to create depth and contrast so the composition will be harmonious and aesthetically pleasing.
When we talk about value, we also talk about gradation which is not only the change from large to small objects, but also the changes from dark to light. You can use a limited value range and you can still create a harmonious artwork. For example, you can use a wide high value range and limited mid values so when you add a low value object which is darker, you will create contrast.
Below are two mixing tests done by our paint expert Julie Caves which demonstrate the undertones that come out in grey scales of different colour mixes – these can help inform your use of colour and choice for shadows or different tonal areas.
To See more works like Martin J Leighton’s and Maureen Greenwood’s please visit the Art2Arts website here.
The painted out Mussini Grey Scales are taken from this post by Julie and the Williamsburg mixes are taken from this blogpost on mxixing Williamsburg Viridian, also by Julie.
The top image is Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning, 1950, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, the second version desaturated digitally to show tonal value within the piece.