Friday, January 14, 2011

Supression of values and Stapletonian confusion

Sargent portrait from

Below is another e-mail question:

Dear Stape:
Howard Pyle is quoted (paraphrased):
Only 2 values - makes strong & powerful picture
Only 3 values - picture is still good
4 or more -- throw it away.
But we are told to use value change - don't substitite color change for value - novices use too few values - etc. I have made the error of using too few values and I see too few values in many weak paintings.
How do I reconcile these two bits of advice???????? It has been bothering me since reading the Pyle quote.
Australopithecus Portapotty

Dear Austra:

I read that quote too, over on Mathew Innis's great blog (find that here) The supression of values is an idea that I was unaaware of until a decade or so ago. Richard Schmid hipped me to that. I can't say that I have fully assimilated it either. usually I confidently write about things I know well, but tonight I will have to say I am a little fuzzy on this too. Here are my muddled thoughts, none the less.Would bullets make me seem smarter? Maybe.
  • I work with ten values with the darkest being a little less that black and the lightest being little less than white. I had this driven onto me by Ives Gammell before the cast. I may not use all ten in a painting, but that IS my frame of reference.
  • I was also taught to suppress halftones lest my drawing be "overmodeled". Still I don't see how I can adequately work in two or three values.I think I need at least;
  1. the value of the lights
  2. the shadow note
  3. A highlight
  4. a reflected light in the shadow
  5. a variation in the halftone as it approaches the shadow (modeling)
That comes to at least five values .I believe I see those separate values in the works of the great painters I study. So I am a little befuddled here too.
  • I do suppress values to simplify my value construction but perhaps I don't really get the implications of this.I try to avoid chopping forms up with lots of fussy transitions and keep the "big".
  • Pyle was working for reproduction by what would now seem primitive means. Some of the illustration in that era was reproduced in black, white, and red. Perhaps getting his art to "read": in that environment made it important to collapse his values, I am not sure. I do understand how this works in the largest overall picture design sense, but not as much within the objects represented themselves.
  • Richard Schmid certainly does it, and that is enough to impress me. I have studied his painting and he is suppressing his value changes, so there has to be something to it. His word is enough for me. His book is a little cryptic on this. I noticed his mentions of it and wished for more explanation.He mentions it, but doesn't explain it, at least not enough for me to figure it out.
  • I understand how portrait pointers turn form with color rather than with value change, and I use that in my landscapes when it seems feasible.
  • When I teach, most of my students have too few values. They have a light, and a couple of darks, and their paintings work better when I throw a better observed panoply of values into them.
  • Henry Hensche used to stress turning form with color rather than value and I was exposed to that through his students long ago. but still......
  • I'm with you, I don't really get it either. I have been worrying over this myself, perhaps I am overthinking it, I don't know.
There I have done a post on something I don't know. Thats a new frontier for me and opens up lots of possibilities for the future as there are lots of other things I don't know. I will no longer be constrained to writing only when I know what I am talking about.


Philip Koch said...

Stapletonian confusion? Oh my gosh, that's sounds real bad. I myself suffer from Kochonian confusion, a related malady.

I think we're running smack dab into the wall here- hitting the difficulty of trying to express visual things with words. Words help, but they can get in the way too, Whatever one does with one's values, make sure you are expressing a couple big and intriguing shapes.If we can do that, we're probably handling our values just fine.

Barbara A. Busenbark said...

I'm going with over thinking. When things start to sound like a chemistry lesson or a science experiment the poetry starts to fade.

Darren said...

I think you're correct Stape, reproduction requirements.

On the other hand, Dow and his ideas of Notan were gaining traction at the time so perhaps . . .

Simone said...

Not that I know any more, and probably know much less, than you but I like the word "compress" rather than "suppress" or "collapse". And I take it to mean working in a more compact range. This is in keeping with the idea that there is strength in reserve. I have studied with a well known and long time student of Schmid's who advocated working in five values excluding highlights and dark accents. The five are divided up with 3 in the light and 2 in the shadows. Like anything else the theory is much easier to understand than it is to incorporate.

Good post! Thanks. Now we are forced to use the words Stape and humble in the same sentence.

Deborah Paris said...

My first teacher (I don't count the BFA) was Ned Jacob. He emphasized using color (specifically temperature) rather than a value shift to turn form or create a separate plane. His teacher was Robert Lougheed, an illustrator, who had moved from the northeast to Santa Fe to paint full time. But, Ned also stressed half tones and that you couldn't get real "quality" into your work without them. Schmid was in Taos/Santa Fe around that time (the 60s) too.

So, I've always heard both things too. Somehow I think both are correct, but can't be applied in some kind of strict formulaic way. said...

I think "reproduction requirements" is a good reason to assign to HIS rule. As we, see there are many rules here and I think it all comes down to aesthetics. I like Schmid's paintings very much. They are beautiful. He does indeed suppress, compress and collapse values. I stay in about 3-5 not compressed values myself , but I find that the values have to serve the painting and so ,if ten are needed, get them in there.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

I try to keep my landscapes to 4 values - which does not, for me, include light highlights and dark accents. These two (highlights, accents) are extremes and to me don't count as the 4 values.

Some days, we have what I call a "3-value day" - overcast days are like that, sometimes. As much as you try, you just can't see more than that.

Of course, 3 or 4 values is a compressed scale. There are 100 values out there (it takes a 1% change in brightness for a value change to register in the human eye.) I could see 10 or 100 if I wanted to, but for plein air practicality, you want to keep the scale compressed to 4. (Or 3.)

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

PS I also use color change to model rocks. Cool in the shadowed side; warm on the lit side; warmer still in the transition zone between light and dark, along your "bedbug" line.

billspaintingmn said...

Stape! Turning form with color rather than with value change? I can only guess at what that is, or means. I don't understand ??

willek said...

I'm guessing he is referring to the whole composition. logicat

elijebrg said...

As a student, I interpret the teaching I have received to say: initially, find two values. Average light and dark.This is the basic design and if you are not able to go any further the picture should stand on it's own at this point as a design. As you proceed to add additional values they are subordinate to the original two value light and dark. This teaching has been in a studio and not out doors where there are distances, varying atmospheric conditions, etc.

Barbara Carr said...

Oddly, I've been thinking about this one myself lately, in trying to solve the problem of why my paintings are sometimes boring. I think the real answer is: it depends. Pyle and other illustrator-types are mostly going for drama, which is greatly enhanced by strong and few values (also composition, but that's another issue). So, if you want an heroic, crashing seascape (for example), try a few strong values with the darkest darks and the strongest lights next to each other. If you want a soft, pleasing, calming effect such as MCJ describes, do what he says. There really are no rules, just guidelines to get where you want to go. I just got a book called "Framed Ink" to help me with some of my value and composition questions.

Doug Williams said...

I am hoping there are at least as many, if not more, moments of Stapletonian enlightenment.

Antonin said...

I am confuse with you ...
What it is not confusing is your teachings on values.

ScottWms said...

I thought of Pyle's comment making sense when one squints while looking at a painting at a normal viewing distance. That obscures detail and allows one to see the basic compositional shapes, which are usually expressed in lighter/darker areas. I always thought of it as value organization within the composition instead of literally using two values of pigment. Creating interesting shapes by grouping lighter values together and creating movement within the design.

Deb said...

Does this mean I can't order from the extra value menu at the drive through any more?

Doug said...


Here is alink on the subject
from my friends at Rational Painting.

See if this helps you.


Doug said...

Sorry I forgot the link

you may have to sign on to view this but please do. a good site


Charles Valsechi III said...

I don't think Pyle actually painted in 2 values, but meant the painting should work in 2 values. If you have read gurneys book 'imaginative realism' he talks about breaking the values down to white and black. The point of this is to teach students to communicate with as little as possible. This way when they have the full range they have an obvious tonal plan to refer back to.

Reproduction seems like a good reason for him to emphasize this.

Anyhow, just my two cents.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The problem of stating visual ideas in words is always there> I constantly am trying to do it better,when I write and forget it when I paint.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I overthink lots of things, I think.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Could be......

Stapleton Kearns said...

I would think that is about what I do.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That sounds good too. There are lots of colors and few values.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think that Alex Katz works in about four values.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Perhaps you are so far north that their are fewer values?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will do a post on that. Remind me if I get sidetracked.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think that the whole picture is submitted in a reduced number of values. Whats a logicat, do they bite?

Stapleton Kearns said...

That sounds like a good way to secure a simple design.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Illustrators of that era built strong simple designs. It is good to learn from them.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You know that I have opened up a new vein here. In the past I have restricted myself to writing what I knew about. I can now write about anything!It is so liberating!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Eventually I will report back when I have this all figured out.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think that is somewhat true, but there is value conservation going on too. Schmid certainly does that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Who are you kidding. There isn't a MacDonalds within a days drive of you, even if you were in any shape to drive. Do mail order?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think I am a member of that, but I haven't explored it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That's a good point. I have seen Harry Ballinger studies of designs for seascapes done in two or three values.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Stape - re being farther north - we squint a lot harder. Sometimes I see just one value.

अर्जुन said...

Stape said~ "I have seen Harry Ballinger studies of designs for seascapes done in two or three values."

Ballinger was a student of Harvey Dunn who (for those that don't know) was a Pyle student.

Richard said...

Sorry to resurrect an old thread but I was exploring your site and recently found a way to rationalize this for myself. The confusion is mostly semantic I think. There seem to be two uses of value when thinking about it: one compositional and the other for fleshing out form. I believe the intent is to block in the composition with a small number of 'values'. Say a background, a face, and a shirt in a portrait that differ strongly in value (light, middle, dark). These drive the intial statement and are readable instantly. Within each big 'value' block, you break it down to another small number of 'value' variations to model form. The inital value statement stays strong and the form changes happen either with color shift or values shifts that are subordinate to the whole.

These tutorials by Ron Lemen helped me make that leap.

Makes the pitch

Shows it off

Thanks for the great site.