Simplify Your Composition with Values

The effective use of values can create the composition.  It can help you pull the viewer to your center of interest, and make sure that the viewer sees what is important to you.



I am not necessarily religious about doing a values study before I paint.  Sometimes I can see the values in the image and have an idea before I start painting.  The act of drawing can help me understand and work out the issues in my painting related to values.  Values studies are particularly helpful to seeing how to connect the portrait to the background, and what edges to loose in the process.

In Skulls, I had been trying to focus on contrast and making sure my darks are really dark. I keep my camera with me at all times, constantly looking for images that might make good paintings. I saw this individual watching the musicians playing at a Sunday farmers’ market (bright sunny days typically give me images with good shadows) and only after reviewing the image in the studio did I notice the skulls on his jacket.  I particularly liked how I could compose the painting drawing the viewer’s attention around the man’s crossed arms.  I also wanted to connect him to the background, which I did usingIndanthrone Bluein his hat and the background.  Also, I like to use complementary colors in my paintings, and loved being able to use purples and Quinacridone Gold of his wrist.   I paint vertically because I want to see my entire painting while I am working.  When I paint flat, the image is distorted.  Also, with my loose style of painting, I get these wonderful drips by painting vertically.  


Jewelry Seller

Jewelry Seller

Jewelry Seller Study was a study for a more finished painting, with an emphasis on values.  It turned out to be better than the finished painting.  This painting was all about the strong shadow across the woman’s face, connecting to the shadow down her neck and jacket.  The study also helped me see how to connect her to the background, enhancing the composition.

Drawing is the Framework For Your Painting

Many artists can’t wait to start painting.  However, the success of your painting will depend on the quality of your drawing.  Think of your drawing as a framework or scaffolding that you hang your colors on.  The scaffolding has to hold together or the entire thing will fall down.

Many times, I get half way through a painting and can’t figure out why something looks off – it doesn’t work.  I know I need to get out my pencil and start measuring.  Inevitability, something is off in my drawing.  I find it is so important throughout my painting process to continually check my drawing.

A good drawing provides a quality framework for any painting.  If you have a good drawing, you can start painting loosely, connecting colors and letting them blend on the paper, knowing that your dark and light marks will be effective, and that your colors laid down next to each other will blend beautifully.  

The Last Painting of Ana

The Last Painting of Ana

The Last Painting of Ana was created at the end of a life drawing session, when I had 1 hour left on the pose.  After I got my drawing down, I could place colors next to each other, letting them mix on the page.  I had the assurance that I had a good framework.  The result is a very effective and loose painting that asks the viewer to use his/her eye to see the darks and lights and interpret the painting.

Involve the Viewer in the Art through Color Mixing with the Eye

One of my objectives in my art is to involve the viewer in experiencing my art.  I want to draw the viewer into the painting, and involve him/ her in the art.  I do that through a variety of approaches, one of which is an approach used by the impressionists.  I don’t typically mix colors on the palette.  Instead, I lay colors down next to each other on the paper, and challenge the viewer to use his/her eye to mix the color. 

For example, my painting Mountain Man, includes a hat with fur and an animal skin.  Rather than paint the image literally, using only the colors that were in the fur, I applied a number of different colors to the hat, involving the viewer in interpreting the image as a furry hat.

In the painting, Betty, rather than mixing the colors of Raw Sienna, Bright Violet, Quinachridone Burnt Orange, Opera and, in some areas, Undersea Green, together on my palette, I painted them separately on the painting of Betty’s face.  The result is a vibrant image of skin.  If I had mixed them together, I would have created a much duller color, and the viewer would not be involved in interpreting the painting.

Lost and Found Edges -- Paint Outside the Lines

Artists use edges to establish focus and to take advantage of the beautiful painterly qualities of watercolor.  Look at any scene, and consider what you are focusing on and what you are not focusing on.  You see the sharp edges in your area of focus, while the edges in the area what you are not focusing on will be blurred. 

Sharp edges draw attention to an area.  Look at a painting filled with hard edges.  There is an impression of looking at a series of cutouts.  Each item may appear to be on the same level or plane.  Each of the shapes fight for attention.    You can limit your hard edges and thereby establish the focus of the painting.

If you are looking at a photograph or painting from life, squint at your reference.  The distinction between similar values, even with different colors, will disappear.  That can give you some direction on an area where the edges should be lost.   

Also look at your photograph or other reference.    You want more harsh edges where you want the view to focus.  If you see a harsh edge, consider whether you want the viewer’s eye to go to that harsh edge in your painting.  If not, than consider how you will lose that edge, and perhaps change the values.

Leather Feather, YYYY

Leather Feather, YYYY

Lost edges take advantage of the characteristics of watercolor.  You are not coloring a coloring book, painting within the lines.  You are creating a painting and want to use all the qualities of watercolor to their advantage.  Let colors blend into each other.  In so doing, you will be creating and mixing different colors on the paper, not on your palette, increasing the vibrancy and interest your painting.

In my painting, Leather Feather, if I had created a harsh edge for the hat, I would have created a secondary focus on the hat that would fight with the face and draw the viewer’s attention. Therefore, I lost the edge of the hat, creating a more effective painting.

Connect to the Viewer Emotionally

Wassily Kandinsky was a pioneer abstract artist as well as an important aesthetic theorist.  In his treatise, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (On the Spiritual in Art), he outlined a discussion of art and the relationship of the artist, artwork and the viewer.

A work of art consists of two elements, the inner, and the outer.  The inner is the emotion in the soul of the artist; this emotion has the capacity to evoke a similar emotion in the observer. . . .Emotions are aroused and stirred by what is sensed. . . . .And again what is sensed is the bridge from the material [ the artist and his work] to the immaterial [the emotion of the soul of the observer]. . . . The inner element – i.e., emotion – must exist;  Otherwise the work of art is a sham.
— Wassily Kandinsky

Artists reflect and reach into themselves to create their art.  Once a painting is created, the art takes on a separate meaning as it connects emotionally with the viewer.  The viewer reflects on his or her own experience as he or she forms a separate emotional connection to the art – which may be similar to or completely different from what the artist intended.  Effective art engages the viewer and connects with him or her.  If the artist does not have an emotional connection with the concept, then there generally will not be an emotional connection to the viewer – in Kandinsky’s words, “the work of art is a sham”.

Artists know that by connecting emotionally with the viewer, they increase the probability that they will create a lasting and memorable impression on the viewer.  Otherwise, their work is in the category of the proverbial sofa painting – the painting that the viewer selects because if goes over the sofa and works well with the colors.  As far as the viewer is concerned, that piece might as well be a print or a poster.  Because the viewer places no more value on the work than a reproduction or a piece of decor, it makes no lasting impression.  In addition, once installed, that work is ignored or forgotten, because it isn’t important and it doesn’t mean anything for the viewer.

Alternatively, if the artwork triggers to some emotionally charged memory in the viewer, he will connect with it again and again.  He is repeatedly transported back to that connection, and, more importantly, seeks out the piece art to renew it. The artist may have no concept of what that memory is.  The viewer has taken the work of art, the emotion that the artist is communicating, and layered on his own interpretation to create his own connection with the work.