Posts Tagged ‘adjusting values’

The Value of Counterpoint

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Last time I wrote about adjusting values to separate the planes between foreground and far distance, which helps to indicate atmospheric perspective.

I was reminded of another use of values as I worked in oils recently. I have used this same subject for several different studies, in a variety of media.  (For a variation of this subject in watercolor, see #140913w – Maritime Study in White, currently in the Landscape, Seascape, and Beaches gallery.)


In my first go at this painting of Santa Margherita Harbor (above, #150906o) I left the masts the same value from top to bottom. A friend pointed out that I’d lost an opportunity to strengthen the image by introducing counterpoint in the masts. He was absolutely right.  I had entirely overlooked it.

The painting became much more interesting when I applied the principle of counterpoint, making the masts and guywires light against the dark hills, and darker against the lighter sky, as you can see below.

150906o Santa Margherita Harbor


Again, it was a very minor change that made a lot of difference. The medium matters less than the principles we apply.

Cleaning Up a Wishy-Washy Painting

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

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.

150512m View of Licciana Nardi

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.

150512m View of Licciana Nardi, b&w

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.

Familiarity Breeds Carelessness

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

We’ve long known the old adage that familiarity brings contempt. Contempt may not always be apparent, but when we become too comfortable in our endeavors, it can show up in a certain amount of ambivalence or carelessness in our work. I’m no exception to the rule.

A friend whose artistic opinion I trust called my attention to it in my artwork. When I showed him a watercolor sketch I had recently completed, he pointed out that the work could easily have been simplified and that the juxtaposition of high and low values displaced the intended focal area.

He was absolutely right.

Any form of contrast is an important element of composition, one of the principal early lessons I had learned. And I had overlooked it!


The subject was an orchid, held upright by supporting stakes. Ideally, at least one of the stakes could have been omitted from the painting. Even worse, the low value and hard, straight lines of the primary stake were in sharp contrast with the soft, curvilinear sweep of the high-value plant beside it. This multiple contrast cried out for attention so the viewer focused on the stake instead of on the flowers.

Although there was little I could do at that stage to entirely remove the offending detail, the distraction the stake caused, as well as the related value problems, could both be modified to improve the composition.

I decided to do just that. I began by raising the value of the stakes and reducing the contrast between them and the high-value plant. There was little I could do about the straight lines’ contrast against the curves of the plant, but I softened their edges somewhat, which mitigated the effect.

The other half of the problem lay in the area of the flower itself. The low contrast surrounding the pale blossom couldn’t compete with the high contrast that the primary stake created.


Lowering the value of the background surrounding the white flower increased the contrast there. This, in conjunction with the reduced contrasts surrounding the support stake, shifted the focal area from the stake to the blossom, where it belonged. At the same time, the low saturation of the background called attention to the highly saturated red and yellow at the orchid’s throat, reinforcing the focal area and identifying a clear focal point within the broader focal area.

While adjusting values, I also exaggerated the shadows separating the petals to provide a greater sense of depth within the focal area. The remaining composition was left loose to suggest the other blossoms without providing unnecessary or distracting detail.

The question remains: In the future, how can I avoid manifesting contempt for the principles that underlie good composition? I expect that, just as I must consider my subject with fresh eyes before I ever lift a brush, I need to consider every painting from the dual perspective of an artist who is familiar with the subject and the fresh eyes of a viewer who is unfamiliar with it and has not seen the work previously.

Taking the role of an unfamiliar observer will allow me to become objective enough to evaluate whether it is as effective as it should be. And by stepping back into the role of the artist, I can determine what steps are needed to bring it closer to what it could be.