Reference Photo (at left).
Cheap watercolor paper (don’t use the good stuff for this). 9”x 12” is a good size.
Ultramarine blue/burnt sienna or a premixed near neutral like Payne’s gray.
Number 10 round watercolor brush.
Neutral Value scale (see below)
Wooden blocks painted white, grey and black (optional).
Inspiration for today’s exercise came from Paul Foxton. Even though he’s an oil painter I highly recommend people check out his learning-to-see.co.uk site and his facebook page. He has a lot of demos on identifying and painting value exercises that are well worth watching.
These kinds of exercises seem, at the outset, to be very simple but are hard to do well. We shouldn’t get discouraged – even a single session painting these blocks will improve our ability to identify and paint values.
Part 1 – Value Scales
So let’s start. The first part of the exercise is to make a set of value swatches from light to dark. I have to admit I’ve pooh-poohed this kind of exercise for a long time. I thought I was beyond that kind of rigid, overly technical approach to training yourself to see value. Reader – I was wrong. Part of the reason to put these lessons together is to write down all the things I really wish I’d known about and done earlier in my painting life. I would have progressed much faster and not gone down so many rabbit holes.
We’ll first need a value scale to work from. This can’t be done easily from a screen. We need something tangible to match our values to. The best, and most accurate value scale is made by Paul Centore and available from ebay here.
Failing that you can print out a version on your printer. It won’t be a perfect scale but I worked with one of these for a good while and it is still valuable.
Linda Huber has a downloadable grayscale that you can save and print out on your printer. Make sure you print this at the best quality possible as lower quality printing will change the absolute and relative values somewhat. Make sure you cut out the little notches on each value block. These are very useful for identifying values on objects.
Painting our own value scale
Now we have our scale we can start making our own. First take a piece of your watercolor paper and, on the right hand side draw nine squares vertically above each other. Label these from 1 – 9. We’ll use the left hand side of the paper for the next stage. Mix up a pool of neutral color on your palette and using the value scale as a guide paint each square with the corresponding value. I usually start from the lightest to the darkest but it’s good practice to go from either end. You can also paint squares randomly – say a 5 first then an 8, then a 3 etc. This is tough but you’ll learn a lot about paint consistency and value this way.
As you work through this you’ll discover that the color of the paint on the palette has no resemblance to the color as it appears on the paper. Furthermore the color of the paint when dry is lighter than when it’s wet. Nobody said watercolor was easy. When each swatch is dry use your value scale to check that you’ve got the correct value. If your color is slightly off neutral squint or half close your eyes to check the value. This should reduce the effect of the color difference so it’s easier to see value.
One way to get more accurate at assessing the eventual value of a pool of color on the palette is to look at its consistency. Joseph Zbukvic has a whole section in his book about the watercolor clock. He divides the values up into tea, coffee, milk, cream, and butter. Tea is the lightest is value and the paint has the consistency of tea. Then as we go through the categories the consistencies get thicker and the values get darker.
Pay attention the paint consistency
As I went through the values I noted down the consistency of each swatch. Things like – was the paint opaque or could you see the palette underneath. How did the paint move on the palette when you tilt it. When you drag your brush through the paint does it leave a trail or does the paint move straight back into place.
As you make your value swatches make some notes as to the consistency of the paint next to each swatch. It’s quite possible that you’ll have to redo a few of the swatches – it’s hard to hit the right value.
For reference here are my notes for each value.
10 – No paint – just the white of the paper. This one’s easy.
9 – Water consistency, transparent on the palette, brush doesn’t leave tracks.
8 – Water consistency, translucent on the palette, brush doesn’t leave tracks.
7 – Milk consistency, opaque on the palette, brush doesn’t leave tracks
6 . – Light cream consistency and flows on the palette. brush leaves tracks through the paint.
5 – Light cream consistency and flows slowly on the palette. Brush leaves tracks and the paint is opaque in pools.
4 – Nothing yet
3 . – Heavy cream consistency. Leaves tracks when the palette is flat. Flows v slowly across the palette.
2 – Pure pigment mixes with a mere hint of added water. Stays still on the palette.
Part 2 – Painting a white cube with value
The second part of the exercise is to use a reference photo. Eventually we’ll be using real blocks but using a photo to start with will cut out some of the problems of shifting light and viewpoint that happen with real objects.
Using the same piece of paper from part 1 draw an outline of the cube on the paper. Make sure you enclose the cube in a bounding box – the background also has value and we’ll be painting that too.
Underneath your drawing make a smaller schematic of the cube. This doesn’t need to be too accurate – we will use this to remember which areas are which value.
Guess the value first – then check!
It’s tempting to just use the value scale to measure the value from the photo and use that. It’s hard to resist but try not to do that (I sometimes fail myself even though I know I shouldn’t do it). The best way to get better at assessing value is to do this:
- Choose an area of the reference photo to assess. This will be one of the cube planes, the background or the foreground.
- Without bringing the value scale next to the photo try and guess the value of that area. This will be a number from 1 to 9 corresponding to the numbers on your scale.
- Bring the value scale next to the area on the photo and move it around until you get the best match. Half closing your eyes or squinting can really help here .
- Think about how close your guess was to your measurement. As you do this you’ll probably find that some values are harder than others. Very light and very dark are usually easy. The middle values are less so.
- Write the value down in the area in your schematic of the cube.
I hope you’ll find that you’ll pretty quickly get a feel for different values. Some you’ll probably still have trouble with. I still have trouble with values around the 7 or 8 level. If you get to within a single step you’re doing really well.
Paint the full value study
You should now have a little cartoon with all the values labelled. I know there are some nuances in there. There’s some reflected light from the cube and the background and the foreground vary a little in value. Now all we have to do is mix up each value and put it on the full value study. Easy!!