Value Your Values

When artists speak of values, they are not expressing their opinions on whether one ought or ought not to tell lies or steal things. No, artists are speaking of the degrees of tonal darkness and lightness running from black to white.

The two most important foundation stones of becoming and being a visual artist are

1. Drawing skills
2. Values: understanding and rendering them.

Many artists and would-be-artists believe they need uniquely different “specialized” training in order to paint various subject matter. For example, a skilled still life painter may believe they need special training before they can paint a dog or some other animal. One may believe they need specialized training specific to painting a human nose, eye, cheek, ear, hand or foot. For the most part these beliefs are absolutely not true.

These false beliefs are likely held onto solely because they are believed, not because they are true. If one has convinced themselves that painting the human form, face or hand, for example, requires uniquely different painting skills than painting an old boot, bucket or boat, then their subconscious acceptance of this false belief may well stupor their conscious mind into glazing over, like a deer staring into the headlights. One may simply stop using the conscious skills they have in rendering the true effects of light spilling over an object and thus paint it in a much less skilled manner.

As this takes place one pretty much ceases to produce an effective representation of volume, mass, texture and even ‘real’ color.
Who has not seen an otherwise skillfully rendered painting wherein the human flesh portions of a light skinned person, for instance, were weak, looking flat and lifeless, with skin tones being that pinkish – tan-ish “flesh” color.

Perhaps a flashback to childhood, you know, that one special crayon called ‘flesh’?
Artists need to stay alert, to think, and to paint people (or any subject they believe they cannot paint well) with the same skills and passion used in painting that old boot, bucket, boat or anything whatsoever they have determined they are capable of.

One must realize and believe they are painting the effects of light spilling over a form regardless of what the form may be.
In his book *Portraits From Life In 29 Steps, John Howard Sanden says this about Values: “Until you fully swallow and digest this principle, you will go on groping, fumbling and suffering intense frustration. But once you accept it as gospel, you can launch yourself on the road to artistic fulfillment.

The key lies in observing, then identifying, the degree, intensity, and direction of the light striking a particular object. For instance, when painting a nose, forget that it’s made of cartilage, bone, skin and other tissue, and seek to properly and accurately evaluate and place its lights, halftones, and shadows. The most important factor in painting the head is not getting the eyes or the mouth right but accurately separating and rendering the range of values from light to dark”.
There are not different rules or skill sets for different subject matter.

Some subjects may require a greater focus of concentration to work past ones false pre-conceptions, but this can be done, after all, this is artwork.
Here are two of my paintings: Two Tops and Warmth of the Sun. You can see the importance of rendering the effects of light properly as the elements in each painting have both subtle and dynamic attributes which make these images more visually compelling.

In studying values, and working to develop skills in rendering them, one should spend considerable time working with black, white and degrees of gray, leaving color out of it. Thereafter, as one works into color, one must bring the truths of value with them.
I know this information to be true and valuable to artists, particularly to representational painters, willing to apply it.
I hope these insights into Value help all art lovers to better appreciate the art they see as they more clearly understand the role value plays in the representation of light and shadow as it reveals the volume, mass, texture, and depth of form in works of visual art.

– Mark B. Goodson

* I recommend John & Elizabeth Sanden’s book Portraits From Life in 29 Steps. Its coverage of the subject of Values makes it a fine addition to any artist’s study library.

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