Guest Blogger for February: Vianna Szabo

“There are only 3 colors, 10 digits, and 7 notes; it’s what we do with them that’s important.”  Jim Rohn

Values are the unsung heroes of great paintings; they are the foundation that color sits upon.  Understanding how a range of values affects a painting is easier to understand if you compare values to musical notes.  I think of the lighter values as high notes and the darker values as low notes.   Just like in music the note by itself is unimportant.  It is the intervals between the notes that give them context.

Usually value scales are numbered but I like to think of them as a  Do, Re, Me scale.

Musicians need to know the range of notes their instrument will play: Artists need to know how light and how dark their palette will go.  Can your palette play all the range of notes you need for your painting?  If a painting is all one value it is all one note.  You cannot make music with one note, but you can with three.  Beautiful design and form can be painted using three values.

This watercolor by John Singer Sargent is made up of three value masses, light, midtone, and dark.  

A value range should describe design, light and form, which guides the viewer’s eyes through the painting.  Values that do not work are equivalent to a musician playing off key. It is unpleasant to hear notes in a song that are off key.   It is confusing to look at a painting where the values are not cohesive.

Compare the two copies of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” with Vermeer’s original to see how important an understanding of value range is.

You can key a painting like you can key music.  High key paintings have a value range from light to midtone.  Low key paintings are midtone to dark value range and paintings like “Girl with a Pearl Earring” have a full value range from light to dark.

“The White Stuff” is an example of a high key painting.  I think of this as a series of high musical notes together- think early Joni Mitchell.

“Goodnight Moon” is an example of a low key painting- think of the first verse of “Old Man River” by Paul Robeson.

If you struggle with values try comparing them to musical notes to fine tune your understanding of their importance in painting.

Reprinted with permission Copyright Vianna Szabo 2017

Leave a Reply