Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Hacienda, 12" x 9"

In this experiment you’ll select a photograph to paint and make a chart of the values and colors to use for a painting. Find a photograph with good contrasting darks and lights and an excellent range of medium values, which make this experiment easier to do. Later you can go on to try it with moodier photos that contain less contrast. It can actually be a very good tool to use to help you decide on color variations in any value area.

Begin with a clear print of the photo in color, not grayscale, since this experiment will help you learn to determine the value of a color, as well has help you find other colors of the same or similar values to use in the course of the painting.

On a piece of clean white paper mark off a grid of approximately 2” squares, five across and five down. You can use any paper, but my experiment is done on a piece of white Wallis Pro grade paper. I find that making a chart on the paper I plan to use for the painting is most instructive.

Use a value finder, which you can hold over the colors to find the values. It’s easier to determine the darkest and lightest values, which is why you’ll do them first. Medium values are most challenging to sort out.

• Squint at the photograph and locate the darkest value in your photograph. Fill the bottom left square with a dark gray that matches that value.

• Find the lightest value and fill the top left square with a gray in that value.

• Decide on the next lightest value, which is medium-light, and add a gray in that value in the second square.

• Determine the next darkest value, which will be medium-dark of course, and fill a gray in the fourth square matching it.

• Find the medium value and fill the center left square with it.

**Hint: It might be useful to turn your board different directions as you fill in your squares to minimize the smear factor and the way dust drops down the page.

Check the values in your photograph carefully and make sure they’re found in the photo. Don’t use too black a dark if that value doesn’t exist there, or too white a light if it’s not that light. Remember that white has no matching color, since nothing is really as light as white.

Next to the value column record the color you see in the photograph. For instance, if a dark green tree is your darkest value and color, make a square of that dark green beside your darkest value square. If the sky is the lightest light, as it often is, place that pale blue in the second column next to the lightest value. You should then have a row of colors corresponding to each value that is derived from the real, natural colors seen in the photo.

This is the chart of colors I chose to use for the painting.
Can you picture all of them used simultaneously in the proper areas?
But to expand on your color choices, now add three more colors that match both of your first two selections in value. These need not be colors found in the photograph. Just match the values as a means of seeing that you could use them in the same place. For instance, beside your dark green you might put a very dark purple, a dark blue, and dark rust. Beside the light blue use pink, lavender or yellow. Repeat this for each row, choosing three other colors, so that you end up with a chart of colors matching each value. You should have a grayscale row, a row of real colors, and three rows of colors matching in value.

It’s advisable to set aside the pastel sticks you choose in order to make the painting with them.

Now you have a chart that you can use for your painting. My challenge to you is to use all of the colors in the chart to make a painting. See how you can use combinations of pale yellow, green, pink and lavender to paint the sky, or all the variations of brown, red-violet, burnt umber, and blue-green to make the medium-dark areas, and so forth. It isn’t necessary to make the colors highly saturated or bright, as I often do. You can just as successfully paint a tonal piece with subtle color that is strong and lyrical in color.

I suggest you begin with a good underdrawing in charcoal on you toned Wallis paper. Record the values so that you become familiar with them and can match the colors in your chart to the value areas properly, but in  painterly fashion.

To find out whether the colors were close in value I made swatches, touching the colors to make a mass and squinting to see if the values were similar or not. You can see some colors that didn’t make the cut.

First layer of color

Here are the colors used in the first layer. The ones along the
bottom are extras, beyond the original palette of colors I chose.

One thing I should make clear is that you don’t need to stick to the original palette. Those colors are meant to inspire you to use adventurous color combinations. I often launch the painting using that palette, as I have here in the first layer, and then go on to add other significant colors where needed. Be careful not to destroy beautiful color layers by adding a flat layer of one color over the top, however.

Take your time and enjoy exploratory color. Leave evidence of layers. Let broken color shine independently, creating a visual mélange. You may choose strong, bold combinations or paint lyrical tonal variations, but no matter what you do, take some color risks to see where they will lead you.

A close-up of the colors used. Notice the layers in the building
and the more broken color in the tree.

Many colors make up the tree, which invited
broken strokes laid down side-by-side.

The grasses are massed together but show evidence of
layers of multiple colors.


As a review, remember that you can determine the value of a color by laying swatches down so the colors are touching one another. For example, to find a value matching the gray stripe across the bottom, I’ve put several colors along it, just kissing the stripe.

I prefer to look at the pastels with my eyes to determine the values of the colors, rather than changing a photograph into a grayscale version (as I have done for you below for illustration purposes.) I find that there are too many variations on how to achieve the final grayscale version, not to mention the fact that determining the value of a color needs to be done visually, not mechanically, as you stand at the easel. It’s important to develop your ability to see the relative value of a color in its environment, whether that’s in nature, in your palette or amid your painting strokes.

Before looking at the grayscale sample below, decide for yourself which of these you think is the same or a very similar value. Squint to see if they become one with the stripe or not. (As much as I don't believe grayscaling the colors is particularly helpful when painting, I do believe you can learn about the application of value to color this way, so I've included a grayscale print.)

You can ree that the second color, the rust, is a little dark, and the fourth color, the greenish-yellow, is a hair darker, (if this grayscale is to be believed,) but both the magenta and orange closely equate to the value of the gray. Don’t be fooled by complementary colors or saturation when seeking values. Squint harder.

I believe you would be successful in combining all five of these colors in an area that’s medium in value, except possibly the rust, although I might be inclined to use it in an earlier stage to flavor the colors and subsequently cover it with the truer values.

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