One of the most difficult things about colour at the beginning is being able to see colour as value. To ignore the hue and how intense the colour is and see it as just value.
What value is that apple exactly? Is it light or dark? How much darker is the shadow side that the light side?
What about a white cloth in shadow? Is that dark, or is it light? How does it compare to everything else in the scene?
This is a really important skill to develop. Because if you can’t accurately judge value, you’re going to have a really hard time painting realistically at all.
Value gives you light, depth and form.
If you don’t paint good values the chances are that all those things will be missing from your work.
Conversely, if you get your values good enough, they can be so convincing that they suggest colour even where there is none.
Convincing light and form
I developed my ability with value through a lot of basic values studies.
It’s a really, really efficient way to develop your skill with value. But there’s a bit more to it than just doing more drawing.
At first, I tried to improve my values like most people do – by doing a lot of basic values studies. I set myself to do 100 small drawings in chalk and charcoal.
In the beginning my values were really not very good!
I also tried doing a bunch of value studies in raw umber and white:
I worked hard, I was making some progress, but not very quickly. Mostly, I just felt frustrated.
Judging values is hard because surrounding values change our perception of the value we’re trying to judge.
It’s also difficult to judge value separately of hue and chroma. Especially with high chroma colour, separating out the value portion of colour only is like trying to taste just one ingredient of a recipe whilst you’re eating the dish. Again, our perception of value is affected by everything around it, colouring our perception (literally, in this case).
So despite all my practice I was still making very slow progress. Too slow.
Then I stumbled on something that really made a difference. Or, more correctly, someone.
I met Graydon Parrish and he introduced me to Munsell. During a chat in a bar, he set me a bunch of value exercises that were very different to the ones I’d been doing. They were very specific, and based on the Munsell scale. I’ll link to them at the end of this post so you can do them too if you like.
I did a lot of cubes and spheres. They were hard at first.
Whilst I was working on those exercises (and mostly out of frustration) I came up with a way of using a colour isolator to judge the values I was seeing more accurately and translate them to the panel.
Things started to improve much more quickly.
I moved on to real world subjects, but still painting them with Munsell neutrals:
I started working more slowly, in charcoal and chalk, still doing the same thing – using the isolator to judge the values and get them as accurate as I possibly could:
I could tell by now that I’d made some real progress. I could see that the light and the form in my studies were becoming more convincing.
It was incredibly exciting. After struggling for so long, I’d finally started to understand value and be able to control it.
If you look at the first couple of studies I posted here, you can see the difference. What I was missing at the beginning was a clear method. Once I had it, my development took off.
That method formed the basis of how I now teach colour, and I still start my students with value.
But I also learned one more thing: That if you want to develop a skill, the most efficient, most effective way to do it – by far – is to isolate it from everything else, reduce down to it’s most simple, and drill it repeatedly until you improve.
So that’s what I’ve got for you today. That first exercise.
How to do it
This simple exercise will stretch the most basic, most important skill you need to develop to see value well.This exercise will speed up your development with values.
No, it’s not a magic bullet. It’s just the most effective way to proceed.
Here’s a 10 minute demonstration of how to do it.
Once you think you’ve got it right, the last check is the most important part of this exercise, because it’s where you get feedback on how you’ve done.
Take a picture of your value swatch next to the target. Then take the picture into a photo editing program and turn it into greyscale. The best way to do this is to desaturate the image, if you can.
Now you can see much more clearly how close you came.
Why this works
This works because it follows the most important principles of effective practice:
- Focus on one thing at a time
- Drill, don’t scrimmage – repeat a simple exercise, don’t just keep drawing and painting and hoping for the best.
- Get immediate feedback (take a photo and greyscale it)
- Correct and adjust, and get feedback again
The last word
Do some practice like this.
Get hold of a Munsell value scale, mix paint to match it. Then use those neutrals (tube them up if necessary) to paint value studies.
Now there is more to value than matching the values you see. Because you can’t always do that.
But this is the best place to start. Because until you can judge the values you see with reasonable accuracy, you’ll struggle to paint realistically at all.
So try this simple exercise. It takes a matter of minutes. But if you do it every time you’re at the easel, in comparatively little time you’ll start to notice a change in how you perceive colour – you’ll be able to see value much more clearly.
Since that skill alone will make your time at the easel go much more smoothly, it’s worth putting in the small amount of effort it will take to get it.
The way to learn any complex skill is to break it down and start small. So start here:
Match one value exactly.
Thanks for reading, and I hope this helps you.
P.S. here are some links to those old posts when I was first developing this method of approaching values, so you can see exactly what I did.
Part 1: Munsell Value Studies
Part 2: Three Cubes with Munsell Values
Part 3: More Munsell Value Studies
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