Using Darks To Bring Life To Your Painting

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I’ve been known to spend a bit of time on social media, and I’ve recently become involved with a discussion group of watercolorists that includes every level of expertise.

From rank beginners with a set of paints from the dollar store to very fine painters whose work one can find for sale on the internet, this group of folks come from all over the world to show pictures of their paintings, ask for advice and enjoy communing with like-minded souls.

Everyone posts images of their latest paintings for critiques, affirmations or to ask specific questions. Without even checking the artist or observing the quality of the work, one can usually spot a beginning or even intermediate painter within seconds. That’s usually because the painting is created using a rather narrow range of values.
If you squint your eyes when looking at one of these paintings, you don’t see any apparent focal point or any definition from shape to shape. This person is not a professional painter.

Why Do You Need Value Range?

Regardless of the quality of the drawing, the choice of colors, the application of the paint or the attention to detail, if all the hues are within a relatively narrow range, the objects in the composition will appear rather flat.

Take a look at eggs on a white table cloth. It’s white on white – right? Somehow, those eggs stand out plainly against the white cloth. The reason is the range of values your eye sees. The shadows range from a very light gray to a very deep tone.

A painter should always check his painting for both light and dark values. The range of values used in the painting should always span a wide spectrum, as opposed to a narrow range – either light or dark. Even the darkest, gloomiest landscape should have some real light values, while the lightest, airiest gossamer wing of a dragonfly will have touches of very dark color to contrast against the pale.

White flowers can have all sorts of deep values in them to show how petals lie in front or behind each other and how the shapes bend and curl. A deep purple flower has areas of reflected light that show which areas are facing the light source and how the petals curve away with increased depth of color or shadow.

Make Your Dark Tones Intense

You need to put on your artist’s eyeballs and really look at your composition to find the dark values and then paint them. You may be using a deeper version of the local color. For example, you may enhance the concavity of a petal with a deeper tone of the pink in a flower. However, depending upon your light source, you may use a shadow color to achieve the same effect.

Shadows aren’t necessarily just a deeper version of the local color of the object. That’s where purples and some of the dark chromatic blacks you create can come into play. Other colors besides black and purple can also be used to emphasize the shadows in your painting.

Mixing Dark Hues For Your Painting

A lot of artists don’t even own black paint. Black, by its nature, is a very dead color. Even if you do own black paint, don’t use it straight from the tube. Blend it with other colors from your palette to maintain color harmony. You can have a warm black by using Alizarin Crimson or a cool black by adding a bit of Ultramarine Blue. Hooker’s Green would be another dark color you can add to add life to your black paint.

Another alternative, and one favored by a great many artists, is using a combination of dark hues to fashion your own black. This ensures you won’t have a ‘dead’ appearance, your work will have a depth of color that’s derived from the colors on your palette, and the visual harmony of the painting is sure to remain intact.

What Colors Are Used To Make Black On A Painting?

There are quite a few formulations that produce luminous, deep black hues. This is known as Chromatic Black, which is simply mixing dark versions of colors to create a deep tone that the eye reads as black. It’s created by mixing a red and a green or a blue and a green.

Usually, one starts with equal amounts of two colors, gradually adding one or the other to come up with the shade you’ve envisioned. Several common choices are:

  • Alizarin Crimson and Phthalo Green
  • Vandyke Brown and Prussian Blue
  • Phthalo Blue and Cadmium Red

You can also add a bit of a third color to intensify or heighten the depth of the hue.

  • French Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber mixed with a bit of Cadmium Red.
  • Vandyke Brown, Prussian Blue and Alizarin Crimson mixed with a touch of Hansa Yellow.

To see whether your newly created black is a warm or a cool shade, add a little white to a bit of the paint to see the color more clearly.

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