Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?

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TONAL VALUES (tones) refer to how light or dark something is. Tones have nothing to do with color, although each color does have a tonal value. For an artist, value is seemingly the most important aspect of color. Color and value usually work together to give each picture its impact.

Colors (hues) themselves each have their own tonal value. Yellow, for instance, has a relatively light tonal value, whereas red has a darker tonal value. Some blues appear almost black, having a very dark value.

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The VALUE RANGE of colors refers to the number of values an artist can mix between a color’s darkest value (straight from the tube) and lightest value (When mixed with water in watercolor). Yellow, which has a light value, has a short value range. That is, not as many variations of tone are possible as with some other colors. In contrast, red has a long value range, with many variations of light and dark red possible.

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Value is important in painting because changes in value are used to describe an object’s shape and form, as well as suggesting space and depth, thus creating the illusion of three dimensions on the paper. It is the contrast between light, medium and dark values which creates the illusion of light falling on an object.

Every object has a RELATIVE VALUE; its value is compared to its surroundings. In nature, as light falls on different objects it affects their relative value. A light colored object in deep shadow may appear darker (in color and value) than it actually is. On the other hand, a dark object in bright sunlight may appear lighter (in color and value) than it is in reality. In this way, tone/value describes the relative amount of light an object is receiving. A light value suggests something is lit, while a dark value shows an object in shadow.

As painters, we strive to have a convincing balance of light, dark and mid tones in a painting. But, sometimes our eyes can fool us. We’ve all been deceived by optical illusions. We know that sometimes we shouldn’t believe our eyes.

How, as artists, do we judge these light and dark values as we attempt to accurately capture details in a scene? A GRAY SCALE (or value scale) can help to measure and replicate lights and darks. The absolute value of objects needn’t always be measured and reproduced exactly, but the relative value is extremely important to approximate correctly! By comparing the values in our paintings with values on the gray scale, we can insure consistent value relationships within in our pictures.

The gray scale (or value scale) is most often comprised of five to ten sections of even, gradual gradations of gray, progressing from white (value 1) to black (value 10, in a ten section scale).

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Without color, that is, using just variations of black and white, it is easier to see and focus on value.

Color often distracts the less experienced painter from the importance of value/tone. By using the gray scale, you can determine the values of colors (or colored objects). To use a gray scale, you generally look at your colors while squinting your eyes. Squinting makes the hue less dominant and value more obvious. As the hues of the color diminish, you gain the information you need about value. The highlights and darks are still visible, while ares of similar value unite and non-essential details fade. With practice, discerning the value of each color without being distracted by the color itself becomes easier.

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(Above) Location of some palette colors arranged along a gray scale.

Since value is relative, rather than absolute, we try to think in terms of ‘lighter than’ and ‘darker than’. In a painting, the lightest tone may not be white and the darkest value may not be black. Therefore, use the gray scale (value scale) to determine the strength of one value in relation to another and in relation to the whole.

Another way to evaluate light and dark values is to use a black and white photocopy. Print out a copy of your reference template in black and white, and compare its values to the values in your own painting. You could also photocopy your own painting in black and white to help you judge how well it approximates the desired values. Or use a sheet of red acetate (which sometimes is included in value finder kits such as Don Rankin’s Magic Value and View Finder, available at cheapjoes.com or at Lee Muir-Haman Watercolors, 64 Meadow Road, Townsend, MA, 01432, 978-772-2001). Hold the red plastic over a scene and look through it. The red color will eliminate other colors, leaving visible a range of values.

Jan Kunz explains that the shadow side of objects is a full 40% darker than the sunlit side (Painting Watercolor Florals That Glow (1993), p. 68, Watercolor Basics (1999), p. 30, and Watercolor Techniques (1994), p. 3, and cast shadows are somewhat darker still. Even the shadow side of clouds is 40% darker than the cloud areas in sunlight.

If our gray scale (value scale) has ten sections, we count up or down four values (on a gray scale with 10 sections) to arrive at the 40% difference in desired values. When local color (the actual, true color of an object) is darker, the shadow color will also be darker, yet the 40% difference in value will still be accurate. So, to paint the illusion of sunlight, first determine the value of your subject in sunlight. Kunz suggests counting four values down to get the value of the same object in shadow. Then, simply match the value of your colors to the gray scale and you will have a reasonably accurate illusion of sunlight and shadow. Since values are relative to their surroundings, you can relate all values in your painting to each other in a similar way.

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Properly Using A Photograph As A Painting Reference.

Getting outdoors and painting directly from nature can be very enjoyable.  You get a feel for your surroundings – colors, smells, temperature, atmosphere, light, and so on.  Sometimes, however, you need more time to work on your painting than you have at the moment: the weather may not cooperate (it begins to rain, or the temperature dips below freezing), the light changes quickly (the sun goes down, or clouds emerge), or other circumstances change (the birds you are painting fly away, or ripples disturb the water).  For these reasons, painting with the aid of photographs is often much more convenient and can increase the amount of time you can spend painting a scene.

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Christmas tree truck photo references.

Dangers do emerge, however, when you are working from photographs, particularly if you use pictures taken by someone else.  As an artist, you need to make sure that the photos on which you plan to base a painting are not copyrighted by the photographer.  Photos do belong to the picture-taker.  As a solution, you might ask the photographer for permission to use them.  Also, you might try a Google search (“Advanced Image Search”) and look in the “Usage Rights” section for content labeled either “Creative Commons” or “Public Domain.”  Alternatively, visit some internet sites that offer stock or copyright-free photos.  (I will include a list of some of these sites in next week’s blog.)

TAKE YOUR OWN PHOTOS.

Taking your own reference photos, however, is an even better approach.  You can think of your camera as a sketchbook, using it to compose pictures while you look through your viewfinder.  Each picture will belong to you, whether you combine it with a similar shot, crop and simplify the image, or make color changes as you paint.  Keep in mind, however, that photographs DO NOT reproduce an image in the same way that the eye sees it.  The camera tends to lose details in shadows and overexpose bright spots.  Photographs can also change actual colors in a scene and provide too much detail.  While your photograph can provide some excellent information (for example, architectural details, lighting conditions, and color references), the camera is simply a TOOL like any other tool (like a paintbrush or painting paper), and your eye and judgment as an artist must guide the use of any such tool.  Use photos not as ends in themselves but simply as sources of reference information.

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Watercolor “Pepperell Relic”, with photo reference.

Sometimes when you focus a lot of energy on taking photos, you may not take the time you need to study your subject and look at it with careful attention.  Sketching or drawing that subject, on the other hand, can force you to “see” what you are looking at, noticing the truly important information.

IMPROVE ON YOUR PHOTO REFERENCE.

Your goal should not be to paint an exact copy of any photograph; instead, you should simplify the scene.  Your job is to improve on a photo, adding your own personality and flair, expressing your excitement or the mystery you feel when viewing that scene.  What attracts you to the subject in the first place?  Take time before painting to look at your photo and think about what you might want to change in it.  Some elements in the photo might seem unnecessary or distracting.  You might be able to improve the composition or color.

If someone tells you that your painting looks like a photograph, don’t take that statement as a compliment.  The implication is that you have actually copied the photograph rather than using it for inspiration or information.  Do not attempt to include every detail from a photo in your painting.  Simplify; focus on your interpretation of the center of interest, and try to be creative.

You will get more out of your photographs if you use them as a starting point for your painting rather than as the desired end result.  You will often need to make some changes from the photo to turn it into a good painting.  The first type of editing of a photo is to make SIMPLE COSMETIC CHANGES while keeping the essential image intact, and many types of these cosmetic changes can improve your picture.  For instance, your photo may show dull, boring clouds that need some added drama.  You could also decide to reinterpret and brighten colors to produce an exciting or ominous mood.  You could tilt or angle your image for a somewhat different point of view.  Some artists who flip the image in the photo (as in a mirror) find that that change improves the way the viewer’s eye moves through the picture. One of the simplest changes to make is a change in season.  Another cosmetic change you could make is altering the time of day (and thus the mood) by changing the light and altering shadows.

By manipulating values, detail, and the quality of colors, you could create a warm, sunny picture or a soft, foggy image . . . or anything in between.  Similarly, you could add more shadows to add interest and visual pattern.  If a photograph does not show enough value contrast, you can create that contrast; sometimes, by simply changing the light direction, you can lighten some areas and darken others.  You can highlight important areas by making them light and by surrounding these light areas with dark colors (thereby increasing contrast around your center of interest).  You don’t have to use the colors you see in a photograph; you can increase color harmony in your painting by limiting the number of colors you use.  Alternatively, emphasize both warm and cool colors for contrast and interest.  You could make some exciting variations of color in an area that is basically one color by mingling other colors to add life.

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Watercolor “Maine coastline”, with photo reference.

Another type of edit to improve a photograph for painting is making a STRUCTURAL CHANGE to improve the composition and to build a picture that is more your own creation.  You can make changes to what is in the photo and to where things are in your picture.  First, evaluate your image to identify the most important object or the focus of attention.  Notice the big SHAPES, major LINES, and VALUES.  You’ll want to decide what to keep and what to eliminate from the photo.  Don’t keep anything that is irrelevant.  Keep in mind your knowledge of good composition (see my blog “Making a Strong Painting with Good Composition” from October 16, 2018, or review your favorite art books on the subject of composition and design).

Cropping a photo and zooming in for close-ups allow you to relocate the center of interest to a more dynamic position, thus improving your composition.  You could also highlight your center of interest by changing your format or the orientation of your paper.  For example, a landscape orientation may be appropriate for focusing on a farmstead with surrounding fields whereas a portrait orientation could highlight the magnificent tree in front of a farmhouse; on the other hand, a square format could work well with a flock of sheep grazing in a field, while an elongated format could effectively fit a vista of the mountains that provides the backdrop for the farmstead.  Exaggerating some details or colors can also improve a composition.  Similarly, you could change your point of view; try changing the level or angle from which you are viewing the subject, imagining, for instance, that you are looking down at the same scene from a plane flying overhead.  If your photo has been taken from the shore of a lake, would the painting be more majestic if you imagined the lake viewed from the edge of a cliff above it?  Use your imagination!

A third way of editing photographs for painting is making CREATIVE CHANGES; this technique can be quite dramatic.  You can add elements that are not in the photo or combine parts of several photographs to create a new image.  Birds from several photos can be put into one.  Flowers can be rearranged.  To a wintry field you can add skaters on an icy pond.  You can paint two different types of images together, combining an image of a wilderness lake with the image of a map showing how to get there.  The sizes of elements within a picture you can also alter; if the photo shows five trees of the same size, try making one the focus of attention by making it bigger while also varying the size and spacing of the others to support the dominance of the larger tree.  You can overlap images, fading one out as it joins another, and, of course, you can even produce an image that is pure fantasy.

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Watercolor “Mulpus”, with photo reference.

While you can paint from a photograph, painting on site is preferable because that way, you can view, experience, and even sketch the scene for yourself.  Using other people’s photographs involves some dangers, particularly if you don’t have permission to use them.  Furthermore, photos tend to distort and change some of the information they capture, in addition to including too much detail for a good composition.  If you take your own photo, you can use it for lighting conditions, architectural details, and further inspiration.  However, photographs can never tell you the full story, even though they can be helpful references.  You can (and should) edit a photo to improve and simplify its image.  Crop your photos, and combine them as needed to create effective, powerful paintings.

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Photo reference for future watercolor.

Paint Your Shadows Bold… And Transparent !

Light is often the making or breaking of a painting.  Some subjects seem uninteresting or lifeless until bright lights and the consequent shadows become parts of the scene.  Light not only creates interesting shadows for a painting, but it also produces tonal extremes, lights and darks.  Without dark tones and areas of shade, the light parts of a picture will seem bland and not stand out.  Dark tones are needed to emphasize the lighter ones.  In the same way, without light areas, the darker tones have nothing to contrast with.  The issue is not just how much light you put into a painting, but also how DARK you can make your darks! Very dark areas near very light areas will give your painting the greatest amount of contrast and impact.

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On a sunny day, the main tones are pushed to extremes.  Areas of BRIGHT light will be bleached out to some degree, and thus you will paint them with pale washes.  The brighter the light, the paler the tone, BUT also the more opportunity to offset light colors with dark.  Sunny areas contain warmer colors like yellow, brown, or red, whereas shaded parts of a scene will be grayer and cooler in tone.  At the same time, when painting a brightly lit section of a picture, do NOT think that a thick layer of brightly colored paint will convey the brilliance or glow you are looking for.  If you apply paint thickly, it can appear opaque because the brightness of the white underlying paper has been covered up.  Therefore, add lots of water to your color before applying it.  The more water you have in your mixture, the more the white of the paper will show through to suggest brightness.

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Because the bright spots in a painting will appear even brighter next to dark areas, SHADOWS and shaded areas ought to be a part of any painting.  A lack of light creates the darker tones within an image while also creating shadows and areas of shade.  An object blocking the light casts a shadow which can fall across a lit part of the scene.  SHADE tends to be simply a larger area of shadow.  The darkest tone in a painting is often the deepest area of shade, where the least amount of light reaches.  As light is reduced, color tends to become darker, grayer, and more muted.

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A shadow across an area of white (for example, snow) will show as a blue, gray, or violet.  However, shadows that are cast across several changes of color (for example, over a field, then a road, then a stone wall) appear to require several CHANGES IN SHADOW COLOR to look realistic.  That is ONE option. To create a shadow color, you could first look at the color as seen in direct light.  In this case, the shadow color must relate to the color it falls across.  If a shadow falls across a green field, its color will be a gray-green.  A shadow cast across a variety of features will change color appropriately, although the shadows MUST remain the same TONE (darkness) throughout (even as the colors change).  Furthermore, shadows cast across a landscape will follow the contours of the land, showing dips and depressions.

If shadows falling across a part of a painting are a darker and cooler version of the base color, how would you paint a cast shadow that crosses a path with grass on both sides (with this method)?  First, you would paint the areas themselves, with the grass painted green and the path perhaps painted a gray-brown.  Paint one area and let it dry before painting the next to avoid blurring.   When the painted grass and path are dry, next create a grayed-green and a grayer gray-brown for shadow colors.  Then paint the shadow in two different stages, one for the grass and the other for the path, with drying in between to avoid bleeding of color.  In theory, the overall TONE of the shadows stays constant throughout, even though the COLORS change according to the features underneath.

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Artist Robert J. O’Brien uses a somewhat different (and simpler) technique. Instead, he suggests creating one TRANSPARENT gray shadow color from indanthrone blue, gamboge, and quinacridone rose. Instead of mixing/using multiple shadow color mixtures (as described above), he uses his one transparent gray to glaze over ANY areas that require a shadow. He paints the areas first with their local color, then, when dry, he paints shadows with the ‘shadow gray’. To vary tone and darken certain shadows, he glazes the same gray over previous layers. (Two, or more, layers are darker than one layer!) Since the gray shadow color is transparent, the base color already on the paper continues to show through the layers and remains visible.

So, to create LUMINOUS shadows, you need to be able to see through the shadow to the color beneath. Using a TRANSPARENT paint color is a must!  Your shadows should NOT be thick and opaque.  The most transparent blues are phthalo blue, indanthrone blue, ultramarine blue; the reds are permanent alizarin, quinacidone rose, permanent rose, or quinacridone red; the yellows are  quinacridone gold, gamboge, burnt sienna, or hansa yellow light.  Most blacks and grays straight out of the tube are NOT transparent, so it is advisable to mix your own shadow colors. Mix your shadow color DARKER than you think you need.  Don’t be afraid to paint the shadows dark!

Sometimes color or light can reflect back into a shadow, especially at the shadow’s edge.  REFLECTED LIGHT may require a lighter or warmer section within a shadow.  Reflected light can be very subtle but can create varied color intensity within the shadow itself (for example, warm light suggested by a touch of yellow in the shadow, or a yellow underlayer).  In other words, areas of shade close to brightly lit parts of a painting might absorb more light; the painter could use more color and less gray here to create a bit more color intensity in the shadow.  

In most cases cast shadows have CRISP edges, which you would paint wet-on-dry (wet paint on dry paper) over a dried wash.  As previously mentioned, nearby objects can reflect light or color into the shadows.  A painter could brush in reflected colors while the shadow color is still wet, for SOFT blending. Other shadows may be SOFT-edged (for example, where fleeting light flashes over a hillside, or in some snow depressions).  Paint these soft-edged shadows wet-into-wet.

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The general process for creating a watercolor with enough contrast to make your picture “pop” involves painting in stages and layers.  Your aim is to paint confidently with a brush full of color and to paint shadow areas right up against the lightest parts of your painting.  Think of it this way:

Stage 1 is the initial drawing and any light toning down of the papers,

Stage 2 is painting in the light washes,

Stage 3 is building up the darker colors and shadow areas,

Stage 4 is adding the darkest marks and details, and

Stage 5 is painting the cast shadows.

Remember that your light colors need BOLD DARKS!

Creating Form and Space in a Painting.

How can I create the look of a three-dimensional object or scene on a flat piece of paper? An artist creates form in a picture, in part, through the use of TONAL VALUES: lights and darks will suggest weight and mass in your painting. In other words, contrast and variation of values (lights and darks) will indicate form, space, and depth. SHADOWS appear as SHAPES lying on the surface of an object, following the contours and revealing the form of the underlying object.

LIGHT ON CURVED AND FLAT OBJECTS.

Many of the objects you paint will be a combination of CURVED and FLAT surfaces. Light interacts differently with each of these surfaces, so pay attention to value changes in order to paint a convincing illusion of three-dimensional form.

On a curved surface, darks and lights change constantly and smoothly. When painting a curved object look for a core shadow with reflected light on the dark side as well as a slight shadow on the light side. The change from light to dark on a curved object is GRADUAL across its surface. The direction of the light shining on the curved object determines where different shadows and lights will fall.

In contrast, a viewer can perceive flat surfaces because of a contrast of value between EACH of the surfaces. Each side of a cube, for instance, receives a different proportion of light. Value does NOT stay constant across each surface, but changes slightly as each side recedes.

COLOR VS. BLACK AND WHITE.

Color is made up of both HUE (the name of the pure color) and TONE. Each color (hue) has the quality of lightness or darkness. (Yellow has a lighter tone, for instance, than purple.) Differences in the tone of a color are easy to see when the colors used are not very intense (or strong). However, the brilliance or intensity of colors can interfere with your ability to isolate and focus only on the lightness/darkness of color, thus making it difficult to judge tonal values in a painting. SQUINTING your eyes can help you see the proper tone. As you squint, look only for the difference in lightness or darkness of an area.

A black/white GRAY SCALE (a card with gradations of white, gray, and black) can make it easier to judge tone in your picture. Alternatively, make a black and white copy of your reference photo, or draw a value sketch of your scene including lights, mid-values, and darks for reference while painting. In black and white you will see the tonal values of the subject ( and not the color). This new way of seeing will help you compose, simplify, and adjust values in your painting. With practice, you will be better able to recognize tones and values and to control them.

When you look at your painting subject, look for a range of tones from light to dark. However, keep in mind that TONE in a picture is always RELATIVE. Observe the strength of tone in one area of the picture in relation to all the other tones. When you squint, you will notice that highlights and darks are visible to you while non-essential details tend to blur. Try to simplify your image into at least three (no more than five) tonal values, e.g. light, dark, mid-tone. You can start your painting with pale undertones to establish the layout of your composition. Leave highlights as the white of the paper. Mid-tones are painted next, overlapping some layers to build up color. Dark tones are usually the final layer of building up color in your painting. Having the lighter layers painted, you will find it easier to evaluate just how dark you need to paint your darkest colors.

CONTRAST OF TONE/VALUE.

CONTRAST (the relative difference between light and dark areas in a painting) is one of the ways in which the brain distinguishes one thing from another. The stronger the contrast, the more it attracts attention. Contrast helps a viewer differentiate between subject and background in a painting and directs the viewer’s eye to the center of interest, especially when the center of interest is the point of greatest contrast.

Contrast is dynamic, contributing excitement, attracting attention, and relieving monotony. Contrast creates a tension between the opposing elements, a push and pull, to provide visual strength and make a forceful statement in a painting. (COUNTERCHANGE is the term used for placing light and dark tones next to each other to create impact.) Every artist wants to paint a picture that has some impact! To create a stimulating painting, include strong contrasts.

Contrast in VALUE is the most common form of contrast used by artists. Other possible types of contrast are contrast in temperature, in energy, and in purity of color (bright or muted). While painting, artists try to arrange and modify the values of various parts of a picture, depending on what they want to emphasize. Sometimes they alter values from how those values appear in reality to whatever the artists need to make a stronger composition. If you squint at your painting and certain areas blend into each other, you may need to add more contrast in your work. If you make shadows darker or lose some detail in the bright highlights, you can make your painting more dramatic. If your picture looks dull, with all areas the same tone, you may need to increase the tonal range. Make sure that darker and lighter tones alternate across the painting and that there is tonal variation WITHIN each wash for variety.

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In the above watercolor painting, note the contrasts in tone and color temperature in particular. Are there soft and hard edges? What draws your attention in this picture? What techniques suggest depth and three dimensions?

EDGE VARIATION.

Since VARIATION is important in watercolor, also allow some edges (perhaps in shaded areas and highlights) to merge into areas of similar tone and to be less detailed. (This is called LOST AND FOUND, or HARD AND SOFT EDGES, or fading and disappearing edges, or broken or inferred edges.) When edges appear or disappear or are soft, they create a sense of movement in a painting, allowing the viewers to imagine or interpret what they see. In contrast, hard edges define SHAPES and hold or direct the viewers’ eye. By employing hard and soft edges, the  artist can further refine the creation of distance, depth, and form.

PERSPECTIVE.

Also use PERSPECTIVE ( a succession of spatial planes receding into the distance) to help you create believable space and form. When you place a light-toned object in front of a darker one, it appears to be positioned in front of the other spatially. Larger objects appear closer than smaller ones.

IN SUMMARY.

Tonal counterchange (light against dark) not only appeals to the eye but also creates shape and depth in a painting. Light and shadow across the surface of an object reveal the form of that object. Strong tonal contrast and a varied range of tones create the illusion of space and suggest three-dimensional form.