Tones & Values in Painting

I’ve realized recently that one of the areas I need to work on the most in painting is tone and value. Color value is the lightness or darkness of a color and is relative, depending on what colors surround it.

It’s easier to deal with value in color as opposed to black and white, because there is a larger range of values to work with. When doing a black and white painting or drawing, value becomes much more important since all you’re working with are shades of white and black. The painting below was the second painting I did at school and was extremely tough to get through. The mix of textures in the still life set up for us, ranging from smooth to rough, fuzzy to shiny and everything in between, provided an interesting challenge.

Greyscale Still Life by Jess Lingley

Greyscale Still Life by Jess Lingley

Just FYI, yes, the statue head’s eyes were crooked! It was trolling me the entire time. D:

I enjoyed painting the different textures and choosing a composition. However, when it came to putting tones down, I really struggled.  With acrylics, we were told not to paint a light color over a mid-tone or dark color because the lighter color would lose its luminosity, something I’d never considered before. This would lessen the overall contrast of the painting and flatten it. Since I’m used to laying it on a bit thick, I had to be a lot more careful and it made the process more tedious. We also had to mix a particular tone and apply it all over the painting, rather than working on one item at a time. This helps unify the painting and keeps things from popping out and looking strange.

The worst part of the painting was mixing a grey on my palette, and having it look completely different on the canvas because of the shades of white and black surrounding it. To show you what I mean, take a look at this greyscale from an About.com article on Tone & Value. This article explains tone and value quite well, definitely worth a read.

Tone Is Relative to Other Tones

Tone Is Relative to Other Tones

The first vertical stripe in the above picture appears to get lighter as it goes down the image; it doesn’t. It’s all the same color, but depending on where you look at it on the picture, it’s lighter or darker because of the surrounding shades of grey. The second stripe is the same, appearing to get lighter as it descends the page but is in fact the same shade the entire way down.

One of the things I’d like to do to get better at tone-matching is to paint a tone-map of all my acrylic colors. It’d be nice to have some swatches of paint to hold up to whatever I’m painting, and then put them on the canvas without trying to second-guess things.

The other tricky thing with acrylics, especially when using just black & white, is that sometimes they dry darker than what they look like when wet. Since that project, I’ve taken to mixing colors a bit lighter than what I think I’ll need. I’ve also started painting from light to dark, because it’s easier to paint over light colors than paint light over darker colors.

I learned a lot from this exercise. If you paint thickly (but not impasto) and study tones really carefully, when you move far away from the painting the tones will blend together to give the illusion of depth. Almost all the paintings in my class looked much better from far away. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to get up and away from your work!

I would like to give black & white still life painting another try. I’ve also seen examples where artists will add a tinge of color to the mix, and it produces some really interesting effects. In fact, even the different between Titanium White and Zinc White (first is a cooler white than the second) makes for a distinctive look.

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