Sunday, March 21, 2010

Confounded values

I have finished the workshop in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. That went well. I had a great group of students who I worked mercilessly. Pat Walker, the organizer of the workshop really does a great job, she runs a dozen or so a year and gets some good instructors from all over the country. She provides gourmet meals and has a big studio building for teaching in on rainy days and for portrait workshops. The area around Rolling Forks looks like a Dutch painting and I found the old farm buildings to be great subjects. I believe I will be invited back next year. I also like that it is spring down there at that time of the year. Its fun to get a week of spring before returning to New Hampshire.

I noticed that Some of the students had a problem that may be common, but I had never noticed it before. They were confusing color with value. I know that it is important to know the difference between color and value. We often see that explained in drawing texts. I don't remember not knowing this, but I must have learned it long ago or known it instinctively. You more advanced artist reading this know the difference and are trained to see it, but newer students may not.

What I mean by this is that they confound color with value, when they see color they drop their values to represent it. If there was a roof that was red with rust, even though it was in strong sunlight and high in value, they dropped the value to make a strong red. Their rooftops in sunlight were the same value as their shadows. It was a curious phenomenon. I would guess that under the eye of a teacher teaching them to "see" in a still life project this could easily be eliminated. Perhaps cast drawing would help.

Color and value are somewhat independent. I told the students to go for value first and to get that right, the color could be injected into that. Value is a part of drawing and needs to be right to express the form before them. What I told them was :

If I held up the Mona Lisa in only values, like a black and white photograph, they would recognize it immediately. If I could hold up a skein of colors that was the color of the Mona Lisa, they wouldn't be able to recognize it. The Mona Lisa is represented more with value than color. Some smart 19th century guy said:



Dot Courson said...

Glad you enjoyed Mississippi! The forecast calls for snow tomorrow. So don't book too early next year! That is typical spring in MS. Happy that you took on the delta landscape! I was a little worried seeing that seascape- but I heard you did very well on our landscapes too! So please post an image of a delta landscape that you painted!

And can't wait for the seascape series you are going to do. Funny- I did a seascape demo last Monday in my weekly class that I teach too! Every student comes in with a vacation photo they want to paint and it almost always has a beach! But the sea is not my strong point- so I am looking forward to it! Your color usage was amazing. I have studied David Curtis's beaches from his books and love the restraint he has with all the neutrals that make the colors pop. They remind me of the Gulf Coast. And the pastel reflections on the sand really show the water there.
I was in Mohegan once and was amazed at the diamond shaped lace-like quality on the surface of the water. You did a good job showing the Atlantic - and although you made it up- it appeared to be a scene from around Gloucester or Cape Ann maybe?

Dot Courson said...

Well duh!- I see Ewing farm now...Must have missed a day's post. (I can't imagine!)

Robert J. Simone said...

I bump into this phenomenon a lot, too. Distinctions between value and color are not clear. I think of it as job security...

Mary Byrom said...

I see this often with students painting outdoors. I think the confusion is compounded by value, chroma, warms & cools, how the eye/brain sees color and what colors recede and advance in perspective in the landscape. I've seen students try to paint in high chroma expressive color and the values get totally flipped (a chroma /value confusion,) the painting looses all form and they forget what they intended to paint. Show them cad red or yellow out of the tube and they can't tell what value it is. With blue and purple its not quite as hard for them to see the value .

R Yvonne Colclasure said...

This is good. I have always had a problem with my values. As a fun little exercise when I was teaching art to some homeschoolers I had them take colored construction paper and match it to a color scale. Then we scanned it into the computer in black and white. It is easy to see value that way. We also matched the value of a picture using different colors than were in the picture and printed that out in color. That helped me more than the students I think.

Barbara Carr said...

Stape, maybe those students hadn't done much drawing. When you use just a pencil, the only thing you have to describe what you're doing is value. Back in the day, I drew endless still life setups where all the objects were painted white. It was seemingly boring, but really useful. I almost never see anyone drawing "in the field" anymore.

Philip Koch said...

Lots of good comments on values.

I draw outside in vine charcoal all the time. It always teaches me something, whether I produce a very dark moody drawing or something in mostly whites and off whites. All of them are enormous help to me in producing my vividly colored oil paintings.

Sadly in the mind of too many contemporary artist is a bias that interest in values automatically leads one down a path towards murky Rembrandt-like dark paintings. The funny thing is, Degas and Monet, and even Matisse were fascinated by studying values.

It's all part of opening our eyes to take in more of what reality has to offer us. said...

What a valuable post.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...


I lean towards what Mary has posted -- that in my teaching experience I've found many beginning painters tend to confuse Chroma with Value, and not so much Hue. And I think largely because Chroma is not a color attribute they've learned to identify as a separate characteristic until I or some other instructors start working with them.

As always, a great blog and fun to read. Was quite impressed with the imaginary seascape.

Thomas Kitts

billspaintingmn said...

All your posts have value! (that was too easy..)
I've always understood it as gray scale.
As a teen, I did pencil drawings. The venus 6B was a must for darks, and little pressure was needed.
As I began painting,I concentrated
more on color than value.
Today , with digital cameras, it's
easy to turn color into black and white. It can help target the values.
Values are the backbone indeed!

Jerrod said...


That is interesting that you saw more confusion on the value vs. color issue here than you do in other places. I don't know that this is a reason or not, but there is a lot of influence from Cape Cod School Colorists down here. There was a substantial group of landscape painters from MS that studied with Henry Henshe and brought back that concept of throwing out value and concentrating completely on color. I did a post on my blog,, a few months back about this very thing. If someone attends a colorist type workshop and then attends a workshop from by someone like yourself that has a more traditional value approach, it can be detrimentally confusing.

Unknown said...

Great discussion from this post. Philip, I always appreciate what you add here in the comments. Bill, we will have to dub you the punmeister.
I heard/read somewhere that "value does the work, but color gets the credit".
I don't speak with any kind of authority here... just a learner myself, but two things help me in my pursuit of good values:
1. squint to see values simplified in the landscape especially, and
2. compare, compare, compare. ie, is the sunlit side of the tree darker or lighter than the field? (highlights in foliage seem to be a particularly troublesome area for many painters).
Seems to me that many folks see warm colors as lighter than they really are, and cool colors as darker than they really are.

Pat Walker said...

You were awesome...the workshop was amazing. You are a real work-horse. One of the most giving
and caring instructor I have ever had. I can't wait for you to come back next year! I know all of the students will be back that were here and bring a friend.

It makes me happy that you found the best keep secret in the world...Mississippi.

Blessings to you and your
Your Friend, Pat

willek said...

I often become confused with value and color. So this post hits home for me. I often refer to a black mirror to help help sort our value relationships. But I sometimes find myself going up in chroma in the hard lit areas rather than going up in value. Or I crank in the color of the light, especially if it is hot. But I think when I do this I should also be going down with my values in my shadows. But, I guess that would depend on light direction. This is so hard.

Unknown said...

and I guess we're all so keyed in to values (no pun) that nobody has commented on the delightful illustration you posted for us!

Stapleton Kearns said...

We had great weather.I lived on Cape Ann so it has crept into my seascapes. It is no real place.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Have you hit on a good way to teach it?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think that they need to practice mixing piles of color that are plausible for the light and shadow parts of their paintings.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That second idea is intriguing.I think you are on to something there.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think they if they could draw and have a master point out heir errors it would be helpful. They otherwise might just continue to get it wrong and never see it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Those subversive value ideas. I can't imagine not being concerned with values, even were I an abstract expressionist. (I'm not)

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Chroma does seem to be a foreign idea to most students. They all had art in school, what did they learn?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think pencil drawing is great, but I get these folks for a brief period and outside in paint.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I know but little of the Hensche method. I did see him do a demo once, long ago.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Squinting will help but I think you need to have some piece of understanding first. You are working to discern values, not unable to process their existence.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. I want everybody to get a lot out of the workshop.I should have waved my arms more.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The important thong is that the world of the light and the world of the shadows are two separate things.

Stapleton Kearns said...

They are of trepannation equipment and methods.You know the drill!

Gregory Becker said...

Hi Stape, Check out my most recent post on values. I think you'll find the first illustration I did interesting.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Chroma does seem to be a foreign idea to most students. They all had art in school, what did they learn?"

I guess it all depends upon where the student went to school, who was teaching them, and whether or not the student was paying attention. A lot of ifs . . .

I know that in my intro classes I would introduce the Munsell system early on because learning to manipulate Hue, Value, and Chroma independently of each other is so central to mixing the colors we see. (The H/V/C system is not the only way to create plausible color, but it is a systematic one that folks can grasp. Once there, they can go on to other ways to mix color. And no, I didn't bother with actually using the Munsell color book, or identifying Munsell coordinates, just the idea of the H/V/C color solid, as a way to navigate the color space a set of colors can create, and as an aid to predicting one's color mixes.)

I can always tell when the student gets it. The lightbulb goes on, the confusion lifts, and they have a big smile on their face. Then, their work has a sense of form (and atmosphere) it did not have before. As you probably know, it can be that immediate. And always satisfying to see happen.

On a separate note, I once had a Hue-blind student take a painting class from me. She wanted me to teach her how to use color, even though she was unable to differentiate Hue or Chroma in any way. Often, when mixing, she would invert the hues that fell into the mid-value range, such as red/green, or yellow/orange. It was a difficult task, but I did manage to help her to improve her color control via "named" tubed Hues and mixtures of neutral greys. She can now paint with a modest range of color and her work looks interesting as a result.

Thomas Kitts