While in Italy this past spring, I made a few quick pen-and-watercolor sketches in the mountains where we were staying. One, in particular, has continued to dissatisfy me because of its flatness. I understood the reason it happened, despite understanding the principles that would have prevented the problem: There was little variation in value, and thereby little differentiation of depth. This was caused by the weak washes I used while making the quick rendering. A thunderstorm had been rapidly approaching, and, in order to finish the sketch before rain reached my position, I didn’t take time on location to adjust the richness of the washes. This was probably a wise decision because, even as I packed away my supplies, the first spatters of the deluge arrived.
I recently retouched the sketch to improve the atmospheric perspective. It didn’t require much–just a few darker areas in the foreground, made by using a stronger mixture of the same pigments. (When using transparent watercolor, the underlying white of the paper shows more easily through a thinner wash of pigment, creating a lighter value when compared to areas covered by a more dense mixture of paint).
I thought it was a good opportunity to show both versions here to illustrate the difference a change in value can make.
This is the original version. When comparing the two versions, you will notice that the warm lighting in the first photograph affects the overall color cast of the painting, whereas in the revised photograph, there is greater difference between the warm and cooler tones, which also contributes to the sense of depth. The colors of the actual painting fall somewhere between the colors of the two photographs.
The foreground is the same value (level of lightness or darkness) as the distant mountains. In fact, most of the foliage, village, and surrounding countryside are all virtually the same value, differentiated primarily by changes in hue. This becomes very apparent when we look at a black and white version, in which most of the image is all roughly the same level of gray.
The warmer hues and higher saturation (less muted colors) in the foreground help to suggest their closer proximity to the viewer, but because of the limited value range, the image still does not provide a strong sense of depth.
In the revised version below, the values in the foreground have been deepened by using denser pigment, especially in shaded areas, to make them appear closer to the viewer, while the more distant planes are allowed to remain lighter. It’s still not great as a finished painting, but is more acceptable now as a quick reference sketch.
It’s a principle worth paying attention to … unless a thunderstorm is imminent.