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Oil Painting Lessons - The Value Scale - Painting Basics

Updated on July 28, 2011

Value Scale Examples

This is a Value Scale, also known as a Grey Scale.  The center color that runs horizontally through the scale is a medium color grey. Look how it changes when it is next to the other values.
This is a Value Scale, also known as a Grey Scale. The center color that runs horizontally through the scale is a medium color grey. Look how it changes when it is next to the other values.
An example of how to light your simple still life.  Harsh lighting is the best to create a sharp contrast of light and shadow.
An example of how to light your simple still life. Harsh lighting is the best to create a sharp contrast of light and shadow.
A student's interpretation of the same apple.  What the eye sees is sometimes very different than what a camera can capture.  Notice the scale painted on the right side of the canvas.  It looks pretty good for a first attempt.
A student's interpretation of the same apple. What the eye sees is sometimes very different than what a camera can capture. Notice the scale painted on the right side of the canvas. It looks pretty good for a first attempt.
A cup that is lit for a simple still life.
A cup that is lit for a simple still life.
The same cup painted in Grey Scale.  Notice the scale which is painted on the right side of the canvas.  The value scale is very heavy in the mid-tones and so is the painting.  Make sure your value scale depicts a full range from light to dark before
The same cup painted in Grey Scale. Notice the scale which is painted on the right side of the canvas. The value scale is very heavy in the mid-tones and so is the painting. Make sure your value scale depicts a full range from light to dark before
Another student canvas.  The value scale on the right side of the canvas is almost accurate.  There is quite a jump from mid-tones to dark values.  Though, the final painting of the cup has a lot of good contrast and is quite successful.
Another student canvas. The value scale on the right side of the canvas is almost accurate. There is quite a jump from mid-tones to dark values. Though, the final painting of the cup has a lot of good contrast and is quite successful.

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.

Excellent student example of using a value scale to create strong contrasts.
Excellent student example of using a value scale to create strong contrasts.

Uses of Grey Scale as an Underpainting

This is an artist in action, painting from a live model.  the canvas has been washed in acrylic paint in Raw Umber and she is painting oil paint in a grey scale, (grisaille) to map out all of her shapes.  When this part is finished, if the model isn'
This is an artist in action, painting from a live model. the canvas has been washed in acrylic paint in Raw Umber and she is painting oil paint in a grey scale, (grisaille) to map out all of her shapes. When this part is finished, if the model isn'

Painting Grisaille

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.

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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:

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    • profile image

      monalisa artist india 

      8 years ago

      its a nice one thank the artists for there teaching.its all what i wanted to know some more.wth luv monalisa

    • profile image

      babzz 

      8 years ago

      Great information. I have been struggling for years and this is exactly what has been missing in instructions. HOORAY

    • carlarmes profile image

      carlarmes 

      8 years ago from Bournemouth, England

      I am finding hubpages a great source for finding art techniques, thank you for your hub I found it useful.

    • Laura Spector profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Spector 

      8 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand

      Thanks markomitic! I hope its inspiring information. Cheers!

    • markomitic profile image

      markomitic 

      8 years ago from Toronto

      Great info. Nice to remind myself about that. I am a painter.Thank you.

    • Laura Spector profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Spector 

      9 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand

      Hi SamboRambo, Underpainting is such a great skill to acquire. I hope you find some time. And, good luck with PhotoShop! Thanks for stopping by.

    • SamboRambo profile image

      Samuel E. Richardson 

      9 years ago from Salt Lake City, Utah

      I majored in art, studied art history, painted all my life, but it never occurred to me to use underpainting techniques. This articles inspires me to try it out. However, it may be a while, as I'm falling in love with PhotoShop art.

    • Laura Spector profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Spector 

      10 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand

      2besure, Thank you! Many of my students are recently retired and I'm amazed at their level of talent and commitment. I think while you'll find it to be relaxing, it will also be challenging and a really unique skill to learn. Good luck! I hope you love it as much as I do!

    • 2besure profile image

      Pamela Lipscomb 

      10 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      What an informative article. I always felt I had a seed of talent in art. At 58, I am thinking about taking a few art classes.

    • Laura Spector profile imageAUTHOR

      Laura Spector 

      10 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand

      Thank you Judy! I'm glad you stopped by. Walnut oil? Wow! That's what Leonardo da Vinci used in his paintings. It's hard to find and from what I understand, very expensive. I'd love to see some of your works. I'll pop by your hubs and see if you have anything posted. Thanks for the link!

    • filarecki profile image

      filarecki 

      10 years ago from United States

      Wonderful article. I've been painting with water soluble oils and have just started using this technique of laying everything out in values and then glazing with colors thinned with walnut oil. It really does make things a lot easier.

      I learned this from someone in a forum I have been active is developing. If you are interested in checking it out go to

      http://watersolubleoils.forumotion.com/forum.htm

      Judy

    working

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