Posts Tagged ‘low key’

Value key vs. value dominance

Sunday, September 1st, 2019

I have noticed some confusion about the difference between the concepts of “value keys” and “value dominance.”  It is easy for beginning artists to confuse the two.

Value dominance means that most (usually more than half) of a painting is within a designated (high, middle, or low) value range.  A full-value-range painting may have high-, low-, or middle-value dominance.  But when a painting shifts from a full range of values to either high or low key, the values are compacted into a narrower range, usually at either the high or low end of the value scale.

That means that in a high key painting virtually all the lowest values will be in the middle or low-middle range, with very few exceptions because even  “black” objects and dark shadows will be influenced by the atmospheric effect of so much apparent ambient light.

Bato Dugarzhapov, beach scene

Bato Dugarzhapov, beach scene

This beach scene by the Russian Impressionist Bato Dugarzhapov is high key but shows a wide range of value within the high- and middle-value levels.  Even the lowest values in this composition, however, are strongly influenced by the ambient light so remain in the mid-value range, which keeps this dominantly high-value composition in the high-value key.

In a low-key painting, virtually all the highest values will fall into the middle or upper-middle range (with the exception, perhaps, of a “pure” light source such as the sun or a lit light bulb, which begs the question of why the artist tried to establish the scene in the lower key to begin with).  The rare high value appearing in a low-value image is more common in a photograph than in a painting, and even then, the points of light, like stars in a nighttime sky, normally appear quite small and neither obtrusive nor very influential to its immediate surroundings.

Van Gogh, "Starry Night"

Van Gogh, “Starry Night”

Vincent VanGogh’s “Starry Night,” shown above, shows low-value dominance rather than low key because the points of light in the sky are crucial to the concept: Their brilliance is exaggerated rather than subdued within the otherwise low-value field.  If, on the other hand, the composition had been limited to the lower right corner, showing only the village, with minor and subdued points of light in the windows of the buildings (see detail below), it could have been described as being low key.

Van Gogh, "Starry Night" (detail)

Van Gogh, “Starry Night” (detail)

Alternatively, mid-key paintings rely only on the middle range of the value scale, with very little in either the upper or lower range, which limits value contrast.

Loren MacIver’s “Morning Cart,” below, is an example of a mid-key painting.  The lowest values are no lower than mid-value and there is very little in a higher value range (compare it to Dugarzhapov’s high-key painting above.  The narrow value range severely limits the value contrast available.  In this case, the low contrast served the artist’s purpose to suggest atmospheric effects.

Loren MacIver, "Morning Cart"

Loren MacIver, “Morning Cart”

On the other hand, Winslow Homer’s “Fog Warning,” below, has middle-value dominance.  The mid-value grays and browns and overall low saturation are critical to convey the concept of the threatening fog, but the low value of the shadows and the high value of the fish and whitecaps provide a contrast to the scene that help to express the narrative by not only suggesting greater detail but also emphasizing the important overall grayness of the atmosphere.

Winslow Homer, "Fog Warning"

Winslow Homer, “Fog Warning”

The viewer’s (often unconscious) desire for value contrast is probably the main reason that full-range paintings are generally more appealing than strictly mid-key compositions.   But, as illustrated here, any key or value dominance can be applied effectively when used with planning and forethought to serve the purposes of the artist’s concept.

Changing Key, Part 1

Saturday, November 1st, 2014

This summer I was strongly influenced by all the fine art I was able to see in person. The old masters weren’t afraid to experiment, to try new approaches, to play with ideas their colleagues were investigating. It inspired me to do further experimentation of my own, and motivated me to apply myself even more diligently to refining the skills so critical to achieving a fine artistic product.

Back in the studio this fall, I’ve been playing with different approaches to watercolor. Basing my studies on one of the photographs I had taken at Monet’s lily pond in Giverny in August, I experimented to create similar paintings in different keys. One is low key, with a good proportion of dark values; the next is much lighter, or high key.

141001w At Pond's Edge 1, Giverny

The low key version, “At Pond’s Edge 1” (#141001, above), is closest to a realistic color and value range. The look has a richness similar to that found in oils or acrylics. The lowest values are very dark, with little transparency. Even the high values are tinted with fluid washes so that very little unadulterated white of the paper peeks through.

My working palette for this painting included phthalo blue, burnt umber, burnt sienna, brown madder, permanent sap green, and quinacridone gold.


“At Pond’s Edge 2” (#141004, above), painted in a higher key, is more typical of my usual watercolor style, with intermingled pigments and a mixture of hard and soft edges. Darks are transparent; and although I have incorporated thin washes in many of the high value passages, the paper is permitted to shine through, providing white highlights to brighten the mid-value areas. The overall appearance is one of delicacy and airiness.

My palette choices were very similar those I used in the previous painting, only substituting a warmer Indanthrene blue for the cooler phthalo blue.

Next time I’ll show a third approach to the same subject, using a very different color palette, and will discuss some of the difficulties I encountered and how I addressed them.