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The Importance of Light: Using Color as Value in Art

Artist’s Corner, Printmaking

Using color as value effectively can make or break a piece of art. A strong piece of art can benefit greatly from the proper use of value scale.

Monochrome as a Tool to Identify Value Scale

The reason most art and photography classes begin with studies in monochrome is because color saturation distracts from value scale and colors have values of their own in relationship to black and white. Color images can fool one into believing they have good value relationships in an image, when in fact, they may not.

Consider my Peter Pan painting below as an example:

It’s an effective painting in color because yellow saturation and value feature the children, especially Tinker Bell, and the foreground. Blue saturation and value sends the sky into the background.

When you look at the grayscale, Tink nearly disappears. If not for Peter, the children would melt into the sky where the highest point of contrast is the lightest part just over the horizon.

The Peter Pan painting relies upon color to distract attention away from the sky and onto the subjects and the foreground, in this case, yellow and blue.

People see yellow before blue, so blue fades into the background while yellow asks for our attention. This is because yellow is a high altitude color and blue is low altitude.

See how close yellow is to white and how close blue and purple are to black? Red and green are mid-value colors, with red generally higher altitude than green, though lime green and magenta can alter the order, again because of the influence of yellow and blue.

Placing yellow, red and blue on both high and low-key backgrounds makes it easy to see how color value relates to the order in which we see them. In low key, we see yellow first, red second and blue last because yellow is close to white which is the furthest value away from black.

In high key images, the opposite is true. We see blue first, red second, and yellow last. Once again because in this instance, blue is closest in value to that of the background.

This means that painters, photographers, and retouching artists can use color as well as value to lead viewers’ eyes through the images they create.

In general, yellow influenced colors demand more attention than blue influenced ones, as illustrated in the above Peter Pan painting. Placing warm colors on or near desired focal points entices viewers to see them first. Cool colors, like blue and purple, tend to fade into the shadows. In fact, many painters and retouching artists use colors instead of neutral values in highlights and shadows to add depth as well as color interest in their work. For instance, a portrait painting will use white with yellow or peach for specular highlights on skin and flesh tones mixed with purple or blue (instead of black) for the shaded sides of the body.

Balancing Color and Value

The following two illustrations show a good balance in both color and value – with the addition of detail interest.

The color version of the painting has a rather large saturated yellowish color in the lower right corner. The small amount of blue in the yellow knocks the value of it down a little, and the use of bold white on top of her hair and on her forehead are successful in pulling the eye away from it and up onto her face. Multiple facial details keep the attention where it needs to be. The gray scale version shows good control of value and tonal contrast. This time the artist was successful using both color and value to help viewers look at the focal point without distraction.

Color Perception Based on Surrounding Colors

Another interesting thing about colors and value is that they are only perceived as they relate to other colors and values. I’ve desaturated both of the previous illustrations and placed them side by side with yellow on top, red in the center, and blue on the bottom. Although the colors are the same from left to right, they are perceived as being different in value; for instance, the yellow circle on the top left looks lighter than the yellow circle on the top right even though they are exactly the same.

And finally, in the next illustration, the colors on the right are the same as the ones on the left but they are perceived as being different when we view them next to different colors. The gold on the top looks yellow next to brown, but browner next to yellow. The blue in the middle looks more saturated next to it’s complimentary color, orange, and less saturated next to sage green – and the desert red on the bottom is nearly invisible next to the desert orange behind it yet it is quite visible next to marine blue.

Bringing It All Together

Successful photographs and paintings contain good contrast, color and value relationships. Painters create during the painting process and photographers use a combination of capture and retouching to achieve perfect harmony.

Artists use a variety of techniques to lead the viewer to see what they want them to see and feel what they want them to feel. Powerful emotion is achieved when the viewer gets hit with the message at a glance and is not then tempted to look at other things. This relies upon careful control of contrast, value, color and detail. Alternatively, placement of these elements at random leads the eye to wander, and that can be a pleasant experience as well. In both instances, knowledge and deliberate image control separates art from accidents, reduces artist frustration, and provides the creative tools needed to put concept onto paper and canvas.

Jane Conner-ziser is an award winning photographer, digital artist, premier educator and independent consultant. With over 25 years of experience, 19 of them in digital imaging and evolving technologies, the techniques Jane developed for facial retouching and enhancement and portrait painting from photographs are widely emulated by photographers and digital artists worldwide through her classes, online training and educational products. 

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