Kevin Macpherson | Understanding Values

By Kevin Macpherson

What do artists and old televisions have in common? Both are capable of depicting the world in black and white. Just like an old television set has a black-and-white picture that includes various shades of gray, an artist must translate the colors of nature into shades of black, gray, and white. Artists call the various shades values.

Brittany Boats by Edgar Payne in color, painting, southwest art.
Brittany Boats by Edgar Payne in color

My previous columns have discussed the processes of seeing color and line. Another key ingredient in appreciating paintings is to understand the relationship of different values. To learn how values ranging from black to white underlie even the most colorful works, take your television’s remote control and eliminate the color on your set. The picture on the screen now appears in values of black, white, and shades of gray in between. The image is intact—void of color but totally discernable. Now return to the color version: Notice that the reds, greens, and blues stay in the same value range as in the black-and-white version.

We can also play with the TV’s brightness button to understand another aspect of painting. As we increase the brightness, all of the shades become lighter. The result can be compared to a painting full of brilliant sunlight. If we decrease the brightness, the darker values create a different mood, such as might be seen in a painting of a moonlit landscape.

Who says tv is not educational? Great paintings can be achieved solely in black and white, but this is rarely done today. Perhaps you have seen a Frederic Remington painting called a grisaille—a work done entirely in shades of gray. This technique was most likely used for illustrations before color reproduction was so accessible. In spite of the lack of color, Remington and other artists of his day conveyed light and created a sense of mood with values.

Brittany Boats by Edgar Payne in black and white, painting, southwest art.
Brittany Boats by Edgar Payne in black and white

Nature can be brilliantly colorful or mysteriously dark, and it has a scale of values one hundred times as broad as the range that exists within the artist’s toolbox. Artists’ pigments have extreme limitations by comparison—we have, at the most, eight incremental shades of gray plus black and white. With this limited scale of 10 values, an artist must represent nature’s infinite light, moods, and subtleties. This seems challenging, but great artists and colorists can reduce a complex scene to a mere handful of values.

A painter uses contrasting light and dark shades at the extreme ends of the value scale to create a dramatic effect. On the other hand, choosing values closer together on the scale creates a more harmonious effect.

In the painting Brittany Boats, for example, Edgar Payne employs six to eight shades that are close together on the value scale. Though red and green are opposite on the color wheel, Payne’s use of similar values creates a harmonious feeling in the work—there are no extreme shades of red or green. Payne’s lightest light is not a pure white, and his darkest dark is a step away from black.

If we view Brittany Boats both in color and in black and white, we see a good example of the inherent relationships between value and color. We can easily see specific shapes of color translated into shades of gray. The black-and-white version “reads” well. It is a pleasing distribution or design of black, gray, and white.

The foreground boats are enveloped in shadow while the sailboats are illuminated by sunlight. These shapes are unequal in size and thus create an interesting pattern within the painting. This proper arrangement of shapes with varying values is what helps create a pleasing composition that attracts our attention from across the room.

If a painting grates on your senses but you don’t know why, examine the values. Analyze how many the artist used to create the painting. Does the choice help evoke a particular mood and enhance the subject? If the painter is trying to create a restful mood, should he have used fewer or closer values? Is the painting muddy? Do the colors destroy the feeling of light and shadow? Answering such questions will help you learn to see the importance of values.

Featured in “Artist’s Voice” July 2000