Value painting

by Brigitte Couté

I must confess that for a long time I avoided delving into value painting. Though I always tried to pay attention to having good light and dark contrasts in my paintings and maybe subconsciously adhered to it, I never consciously made use of the different values of my paint or dry pastel.
Only when I visited pastel artist Daggi Wallace in California and she introduced me to the secrets of value painting, did I realise what was missing in my paintings; the interaction of different hues of the same value.
It’s difficult to explain this in writing, so I’ll try to visualize it with the help of a pepper and lots of photos.
This is my subject:
PHOTO 1 01 Originalfoto Paprika

I deliberately choose a simple motif with different values. I edit my photos with the help of paint.NET, a picture editing program. I first change my photo into ‘black and white’, then I use ‘posterization’ to choose the best gradation. This is what my photo looks like with 9 grades:
PHOTO 2 02 bearb Foto

Of course when you’re out painting plein-air, you can’t very well take your laptop. To help you determine the values, you can use value finders. These are sheets of red and green plastic you hold up against your motif. They neutralize the colours and leave only a gray scale; your values. You use the red sheet for predominantly green scenes and the green one for red scenes (deserts anybody?).


PHOTO 3 03 Folien
This is my pepper seen through a red plastic sheet:




PHOTO 4 04 Paprika unterFolie
But why go to all that effort? Haven’t you sometimes asked yourself why some paintings seem to vibrate and shimmer although they use colours who do not seem to go together? That’s where values come into play. If the colours you use have the same value you can put them next to each other and get fascinating results.
Have a look at my pepper again. I put pastels of different hues on my 4 main value grades. When you look at it through the red plastic sheet you can see that they are similar in value.

 06 Kreiden mit roter FoliePHOTO 5 and 6 05 Pastellkreiden fr Paprika
In this case I chose green, blue and purple hues of the same value.

The painting process
If you are not good at drawing, here’s a little hint. Print out your motif, go over the back with a hard pastel and rub it in. For the pepper a green pastel would work well. This is what the back of your reference photo printout will look like:

PHOTO 7 07 Durchpausen
You lay your printout, pastel-covered side down on your support – I use white Clairfontaine Pastelmat - and carefully trace your motif and your different value zones with a ball pen. Lead pencils are too sharp and will leave grooves in your support.




PHOTO 8 08 erster Strich
PHOTO 9 09 Vorlage
You can also buy tracing paper in different colours. The downside is that they rarely combine with the pastel and sometimes remain visible – which of course can also be quite interesting. If you use the technique I describe, this won’t happen because the lines merge into your pastels or your underpainting.
Don’t worry about using this technique; the Old Masters had their tricks as well. I am sure that if they lived today they would use them without misgivings.
After sketching or tracing your motif you can either start directly with your pastels or start with an underpainting. You can either use your pastels and a terpenoid wash or an acrylic emulsion. Using diluted acrylic paint is also possible. In this case I use a water colour underpainting.
Why underpaint? There are several reasons:
1. You get to know your motif
2. You get to know its values
3. You can play around with your colours and try out which colour combinations suit you best. You can always cover them with pastels if you change your mind.
4. You lose the white surface which can be intimidating to some.
5. You can let the underpainting stay visible in places and thus achieve interesting effects.
Personally I like to use complementary colours for my underpaintings. I sketch my pepper with red water colour paint, always comparing my values with the different grades of my posterized version (it helps having a print-out; see photo 1).
PHOTO 10 (water colour sketch), 11(water colour underpainting seen through the green plastic sheet) and 12(for comparison; this is my original photo seen through the red plastic sheet)

10 Aquarell rot Paprika11 Aquarell unter grner Folie12 OrgFoto unter roter Folie
It’s easy to see that my values on top and on the right side of the pepper are too dark. I have to correct that later.
Now I loosely block in my first layers, always with due regard to the values. I sort my palette into dark, middle, light and very values. I either put them on the worktable or in little pots, so I don’t need to search for them. Having done a value underpainting and referring to my gray scale printout, I know where the different values in my motif are placed.
PHOTO 13 13 Palette
(<-dark middle light ->)

I always remove the paper from my pastel stick and break it in two. I can use the broad side of the stick to loosely block in the major shapes. Then I layer on the next colour. I always make sure to use the same values for the different grades. Now a purple hue goes with a green or an orange hue with a blue – as long as they are similar in value. In the beginning you will probably have to use your value finder. It helps you to get to know your values better. You will be surprised how often you’ll be wrong about your choices and how dark or light a colour actually turns out in gray scale.
15 Folie zur PrfungPHOTO 14 and 15 14 erster Schritt
Use your value finder often on your reference photo and your painting to make sure that your values are correct.




PHOTO 16 16 zweiter Schritt
Looking at my work now, I realise where light and dark values are still missing. The edge of the shadow area under the pepper is too dark and some strokes on the left side of the pepper are too light. The light spot on top is too dark as well.
Now I start to play with colours using dark purple, reddish violet and pink and different shades of blue.
I purposely do not use colour names because every pastel producer uses different names. For those of you who want to try out this demo; I want you to pick your own palette.
PHOTO 17 17 fertiges Bild
(The finished painting)





Someone who has masterI must confess that for a long time I avoided delving into value painting. Though I always ed value painting can work either hyper-realistic or completely alter his reference. Why not play around with your motif?
PHOTO 18 18 Blaue Paprika(pepper in blue, red and yellow)
PHOTO 19 19 Trkis rosa Paprika(pepper in turquoise, pink and green)