Establishing Lights & Darks In Your Painting

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Whether you are painting with oils, acrylics, watercolors, sketching with pastel or pencil, it is necessary to establish the values to create a convincing, well-executed piece of artwork.

If you are painting en plein air, you will paint the scene the way you see it. If it is a dark blustery day, your painting will have more darks than lights.

Alternatively, painting the same scene on a sunny, cloudless day will lighten your palette considerably, transforming the scene into light colors with little darkness.

Decide On Value To Express The Mood Of Your Piece

Whether you are painting a landscape, portrait or still life, there is value to consider before you start painting. Regardless of the hue, your palette will be composed of a range of lights and darks.

If there is little change from the lightest value to the darkest tone, the painting will be relatively flat in appearance. A painting needs strong lights and darks to contrast, giving the illusion of depth and space. A painting that is mostly darks or lights or medium tones will not have enough tension or action to keep the viewer’s attention. In spite of the quality of composition, craftsmanship or color, the work will be boring.

Contrast To Make Your Composition Pop

One tenet expressed in art class is to paint one third, two thirds and a little bit. Paint one third light and two thirds dark tones, or two thirds light and one third dark. This contrast makes for a lively picture that gives a feeling of drama or action to interest the viewer. The little bit refers to the range of value not used in the larger masses of the painting and gives relief to the tension between the two high contrast sets of values.

Keying Your Painting

This term refers to the tonal values of a painting, not the actual colors. Consider the lightness or darkness of a paint, and ignore the actual color. The tonal value falls within the gray scale range from one to ten. The gray scale denotes one as white and black as 10.

When choosing your palette, you can select colors that will keep your painting in high key, medium key or low key.

  • High Key – Tonal range is light to medium. Gray scale 1-5
  • Medium Key – Tonal range is light to dark. Gray scale 3-7
  • Low Key – Tonal range is dark to medium. Gray scale 5-10

Using this as a guide, you will add highlights from the other end of the scale spectrum, but the overall look of the painting will be fall into one of these categories.

By making this a conscientious decision, you are giving yourself more control over how you want your painting to appear. For example, if you want your painting to express a sunny atmosphere, use a high key palette and use low key colors for distinct shadowing. A medium key will have a decidedly quiet atmosphere and lack excitement. However, this may be exactly the feel you’re going for, so the wise use of color contrasts may produce a warm and inviting piece. A low key painting, full of foreboding, mystery or ambiguity may convey the sense you wish to bring to your viewers. This painting will be full of deep colors and shadings, relieved with a small amount of high and mid key highlights.

There is a place for each of these scenarios, and selecting the key of your painting before you even pick up a brush will give you clear focus to keep your painting on track.

Just as a builder has a blueprint of the house he constructs, an artist should have a firm concept of the effect he wishes his painting to project. The same composition can be created to convey a number of different emotions in the viewer. A composition can communicate diverse sensations by the use of a light, medium or dark palette: cheerful and sunny, misty and vague, or dark and sinister.

Plan your painting key and level of contrast, as well as your color choices, in setting out your palette. By making these decisions in advance, you’ll make fewer mistakes and detours on the way to your completed masterpiece.

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