Oil Painting Lessons - The Value Scale - Painting Basics
Value Scale Examples
Underpainting and Mapping out the Grey-Scale
Invented in the Medieval period, underpainting in a value scale has helps artists to simplify the process of painting. It is an opportunity to work out drawing, composition, perspective, texture, lights and darks and visual rhythm in a composition - creating and correcting until it is perfect. After which, color is added to complete the work of art.
This process saves time on mistakes and money on paint. The final result when using oil paint, allows light to magically pass through multiple layers of translucent paint, creating a glowing affect or an "inner light" which so many Old Masters have captured in their works of art.
This technique has changed names throughout the centuries and has been known as; Value Scale, Black and White Painting, Grisaille, Dead Coloring Process, Chiaroscuro and Grey Scale.
Artists such as Jan Van Eyck, Giotto, Bellini, Giovanni, Titian, Caravaggio, Valazques and Rembrandt all used this process in their artwork. The popularity of this process began to decline in the late 1800's, however it remains a valuable tool, especially for beginning artists.
The Simple Still Life
Start your painting with a simple still life. This means one object. An apple or a cup is perfect. If this is your first painting, avoid anything reflective or with a complicated pattern on it. Just the basics to start.
Consider this a test canvas or a simple assignment. More than likely, your finished painting won't be hanging in The Metropolitan Museum, release any stress you have of perfection. This is only an exercise.
Place your object on a table that will be about eye level. This will help you to not strain your neck or back. Make sure that it is stable and will not move as you work. Use a clamp light and light your object from one angle (see pictures). The light should be close to the object creating a harsh contrast of lights and darks.
Thumbnail Sketches and Composition
A thumbnail sketch is a tiny sketch that should proportionately resemble the shape of your canvas. If your canvas is a square, your thumbnail sketch should be made in a square. Draw a few small sketches with pencil testing out a variety of placements for your still life object. Play with the composition by changing the scale of the object. Move it to the right or left, up or down. Take a look at what happens if you magnify the object and make it really big, allowing it to fall off the edges of the canvas. More than likely, you'll find that almost anything is more interesting than painting an object actual size right in the middle of the canvas.
Transfer your thumbnail sketch to your canvas using vine or willow charcoal. Draw lightly and then blow off any excess dust. Only draw in large shapes to give an idea of placement. Remember, you are painting not drawing.
Mixing Your Colors
Black and white is not necessarily two colors. To get a really interesting, rich black, try mixing ultramarine blue with burnt umber. The mixture varies depending upon the brand of paint you are using. In my classes, students use Reeves. The percentage is 60% Ultramarine Blue to 40% Burnt Umber to make a really rich black.
Start by mixing your black paint. Then squeeze out a blob of white paint on one end of your palette. Scoop about 90% of the white pile of paint to what would be the next value in the scale and add a minute, tiny, sparing amount of your black mixture into the second blob of white paint. This will result in a very light grey color. Then scoop about 90% of that mixture into your next value scale and add a tiny, minute, sparing amount of black paint into this pile and so on and so forth. You're aiming for at least 9 values in the scale. The final scale should go from white through all the light grey values, to mid-tones and into dark values and end in black.
Always add black to the white paint. You can always go darker, but it takes a lot of paint to go lighter. I recommend starting with your scale on a palette, (I recommend a sheet of glass on top of white foamcore for a convenient palette) and after it is accurate, transfer small swatches of it onto a corner or side of your canvas as a reference.
Uses of Grey Scale as an Underpainting
I like to tell my students that a good under painting is 60% black and 40% white. This doesn't leave a lot of room for mid-tones. Obviously, if this is taken very seriously, the outcome would resemble just black and white with no grey. But, I say this because painting black and getting dark contrasts is the most difficult challenge for a new painter.
Start by painting in your largest shapes. Some artists paint in their middle tones first, others like to start with the darkest areas first. I personally like to see students work with the darkest shapes first because it forces them to go dark.
Go slow. Take your time. Make sure to stand back from your painting often. If you have a digital camera, take photos of your process. A digital photo can also help you locate weak sections of your paintings, indicating what needs to be darker and what needs to be lighter.
White is the last color to be painted for the highest highlights. You may have to wait for your paint to completely dry so your white doesn't turn into a light grey. If you are using oil and your painting starts blending too much, let it dry before you continue.
If you enjoyed this exercise, please visit my other hubs. I have been teaching painting at ArtSpace in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the past 6 years and am currently putting up my Beginning Painting Syllabus. Please visit my other articles:
More by this Author
The difference between paint brushes
An efficient way to learn the basics of painting a self portrait.
I've been teaching oil painting classes for about six years now. Every student has their strengths, but one thing that most of them have in common is they get stumped when it comes to which colors to use. This is a...