Friday, October 25, 2013

Confounding color and value in the landscape.

Hey Stape:

 Here's a plein air painting I did the other day. Maybe you could critique it for me? I call it "The Road Home" because it reminds me of  driving down to visit my mother. How I miss her larder and Ganesh cones.
 "Rusty" Phenolphthalein

Rusty,  you are 


You have failed to make a clear statement of your lights and darks. Look at the Metcalf below.  Do you see the clear pattern of lights and darks?

or how about in this Gruppe? Squint, that will make it even clearer.

Your painting looks "mushy" because you are making notes of the same value in both your lights and your shadows. Look at your mass of trees at the upper left, and compare it's value with the lower right hand corner that is in the light, common notes. You are including in your lights and your shadows notes of the same value.

I see  this fault in students work routinely. When a note is deeper in value, the student responds not by dropping it's value, but by increasing it's saturation. Conversely, they respond to highly saturated colors in the light by painting them low in value. I have wondered if part of the fault lies in our language. In the everyday world we use the word "bright" to mean both high in value and full of color. We might say that a white room with many windows is bright, and then reject a screaming yellow color for the walls as "too bright". We do the same for the word "dark", a room could be too dark if it lacked light, yet we also might refer to a  paint scheme as "too dark".

The easiest way to understand the difference is to think of a black and white photo, that is a pattern of values. Color doesn't appear. Color and value are both interrelated and hold hands in public. But they are two separate qualities that describe a note on your canvas. On gray days the values may grow very close together, but the division remains, even if the only deep shadow is in your pockets.

When we paint the landscape outside one of the most important tasks before us is to delineate the light and the shadow. This is drawing, even if it is tonal and not done with a pencil. It could be done in black and white, it is not a function of color.

"Rusty", look at your painting, see the nearest shadow crossing the road ? It shares values with the field in sunlight to it's left.

Above is your picture again. Below, I have strewn red dots across it noting where the same  middle value notes occur. That value is laced through both your lights and your shadows.

It is essential to use a different set of values to represent your lights and shadows. Imagine a deck of cards, with just two suits, dark cards and light cards. Now deal them into two piles on the table before you, dark cards in one pile and light cards the other. Sorting the lights from the darks in a painting is similar. There are two piles, light and dark. No card fits in either one, each card is either one of the light cards or one of the dark cards. Every time your brush hits that canvas you need to know, is this note in the dark or is it in the light?


Durham, North Carolina

I am teaching a workshop in Durham, on November 1-3,  Here is the link to that. 
I have a medium sized class, so there is room for a few more. Smaller groups are more like going on a painting trip together. There is time for lots of individual attention. I looks like there will be good fall color there too. This will be the last workshop for a while for the faint hearted, your next opportunity will be the dreaded SNOWCAMP.


g.c. pickering said...

Thank you. This is REALLY helpful! I've been struggling with this for ages - and your description of 2 piles of cards / colors really makes it clear. So that no color is in both piles. perfect. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


I think the point is not the color so much as it's the VALUE of the colors in each pile Stape is emphasizing.

Light values go in one pile of cards, dark values go into another pile of cards.

light in light, dark in dark.

One of the easy ways of checking the values of yoru painting is getting any cheapo digital camera out and taking a quick monochrome/b&w pic of it and looking at the preview.

It's amazing how it can aide in helping you take away color and get at the value.

Some might call this cheating...but it's a quick and easy way to check the values of your painting and to aide in learning.

jjwoodee said...

What great timing in this post. I just did a plein air today that I will examine and use this post for analysis. I'm afraid to say it may be mushy but I think I can rescue it. I'm hoping to make it to snowcamp this year.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the "tune-up" Stape. I love the deck of cards analogy.

R. A. Davies said...

I've heard this problem explained a different way. Hope this helps. When painting outside, the tendency is to stare long and hard at the area we are painting. As you know, the human eye is amazing at adjusting for dark and light areas. In fact, it is so good at it, we can look from the darkest area to the lightest area with barely a break in our ability to see the subtle differences. When you look at a dark area for a long time, your eye then sees all the subtle tones, making what really is a dark element in a shadow seem really light. The trick is to compare the dark "highlight" with a nearby light area. As Stapleton notes, you can divide the lights and the darks into two piles. What he does not say, but which I feel is important and may seem obvious to him, is that the lightest dark is darker than the darkest light. Since painters cannot replicate the reflection of light, we work in a limited value palette. We must then trick the eye by arranging our colors and values in a way that fools the eye.

Damn, I sound boring. But, it works.