Value in composition

Values is a term in art that describes how light or dark something is. It refers to the grayscale value of a color.

How light or dark something is is one of the primary ways our visual system analyzes the visual world around us. It’s how we recognize something as a shape or an outline and it clues us to understand it as an entity.

In visual art it is a primary tool to emphasize and de-emphasize elements in a work of art. More specifically than value, it is the contrast that is used to make something stand out or disappear. When you start paying attention to how it is used in art, some of those lovely paintings and the way they were composed starts seeming very deliberate and not so random. It is not just that an artist gets an inspiration and an idea of what they want to paint, it is also that they then spend time composing the values of the picture to make the theme or subject of their painting stand out. So much so that in some cases it can almost seem shamelessly composed, yet seem entirely coincidental, unintended and realistic.

As an example, I’d like to go over this painting by Pierre Auguste Cot; The Storm

1880, Pierre Auguste Cot: The Storm
1880, Pierre Auguste Cot: The Storm

Now let’s look at the same painting displayed only in 6 distinct values:
1880 Pierre Auguste Cot- The Storm Grayscale poster
Things just “happen” to catch light or not catch it exactly where they are needed. Their feet stand out because the light on the ground “happened” to fall exactly where their feet landed. Very interesting, isn’t it? the man’s dark hair, which would have disappeared into the dark background stands out from it because they “happen” to hold a fabric over their head which is lighter than his hair. 🙂
The woman is wearing a white dress which catches light full on, making her stand out and come forward compared to everything else in the scene. The man’s torso catches light, making it stand out against the dark background behind that area and is even further emphasized by the darkest dark of the fabric they are holding.
Following the outline of the back of the man’s left leg, Observe the way the light on the ground around the man’s dark left leg goes all the way up, exactly to the point where the fabric hangs down. The fabric is darker than the leg which allows the leg to stand out again. Coincidental perfection.

The moment captures looks like something a camera could randomly capture, but actually, a very careful, seemingly random arrangement of elements takes place all across the scene.

There is another important visual principle that takes part here. The degree of contrast across the scene. I learned this interesting idea from an online lecture by artist Bill Perkins at New Masters Academy.

Our mind constantly looks for patterns. How fast a contrast changes is a visual thing our subconscious processes. When one area of a scene has a lot of details but the rest of the scene does not and vice versa, we recognize it and focus on the exception. This is why in most figurative paintings the background is grouped into big, uniform value shapes while the figures are allowed to have smaller transitions, “faster” value changes (faster across the 2D space of the picture plane). This also holds true in this painting by Cot. The details of the woman’s face and dress especially stand out. The artist uses 4 values to describe the figures while all the shapes in the background have 1 or 2 values each and are kept as big uniform value shapes.

To give another example, here is a value study for the composition of the painting Satire and Nymphs, by William Adolphe Bouguereau:
Bouguereau value study

There seems to be another principle relating to value in common for both paintings: they both use lighter values for figures closer to the viewer and darker values for things in the back. It is true of the woman from Cot’s painting and the 4 women in Bouguereau’s. I believe the Satire is left darker to contrast himself against the nymphs, but there still happens to be next to the rocks behind him and one of the woman’s legs which are darker than his body.  Coincidental not-coincidence at all. 🙂

For me as an artist, that needs and wants to create art and not just appreciate it after the act, I have to translate all of this into work-practice principles.
I’ve come up with the following steps:

  1. Decide what you want to paint and identify your theme and mood.
  2. Choose values and contrast that match your theme. If it’s a hazy day, work only with 3-4 values on the lighter scale. If it’s a dramatic night scene, choose high contrast and use the darkest darks etc’.
  3.  Draw your scene and figures as outlines without values. This step is a lot of work by itself, but can still be done somewhat separately from the value distribution.
  4. Start by creating a contrast between your subject, your focal area, and its surrounding. Designate 4 values to the entire scene from the value you chose according to the mood (from step 1), and make sure the values separate the different elements you want to differentiate. Then use big value shapes to fill in the outlines. Make sure you left enough value range for your details in the focal area.
  5. Slam your fists on the drawing board in frustration or joy, depending on how it all went. Don’t forget this step as it is crucial for the future success of your artwork.

I hope you enjoyed my summary and analysis of values in composition.


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