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Oil Painting Lessons - Value Scales to Shapes of an Apple

Updated on November 9, 2010

How To See Like An Artist

There are a couple of fundamental things that artists must learn in order for their drawings and paintings to look good.  Value Scale and Seeing Shapes are two very important fundamental skills to practice and master to make your artwork amazing.

My main focus is painting.  And, the following information that I will be discussing, is mainly in regards to painting.  First, lets talk about the Value Scale.  To start with, value can refer to any color, but we'll begin by talking about a Grey Scale.  A Scale is how you get from the color white to the color black, with all the tones inbetween. If you take for example the student drawing of the Grey Scale apple below, which was created in charcoal, you'll see the boxes at the bottom of the drawing.  This is a Grey Scale.  The box in the center is your mid-tone.  And, when you're working with color, the mid-tone is considered the color that is coming directly out of the tube of paint (or your color mixture).  From that color, if you add a tiny bit to white and mix it with a palette knife you will create the lighter tones of your scale (always mix dark into light, or you'll end up with a huge pile of paint).  Or, if you add black to your mid-tone, you'll start moving toward the darker tones in your scale.  In the case of charcoal, the student used a gum eraser and their fingers to help lighten the charcoal, or more charcoal to darken it.  Value Scales take time to learn.  They are as important to artists as playing scales on the piano is to the musician. 

The reason Value Scales are so important, is that when artists are making traditional style paintings, if they use all of the values in the scale, their picture will appear more lush, three dimensional and more interesting.  Take a look at your favorite 19th century (or older) painter.  See if you can find all of the value scales in their painting.

At this point, I want to mention charcoal.  It comes in two types: willow and vine.  Willow is easier to get grey tones out of and Vine is easier to get black tones out of.  I think of charcoal as more of a painters tool.  Its a great tool to use to lightly draw out your image on canvas before painting as well.  On paper, its easy to smear it around and has a feel that is a bit more like paint, even though its sold with the drawing supplies.  Later, I'll talk about watercolors, which I tend to think of as more of a drawing tool (thats my personal take on it...perhaps I'm more of an oil or acrylic person).

In the charcoal exercise in the photo below, I had students look at an apple.  To start with, they looked at it for a timed 5 minutes non-stop and not touching any drawing tools, just looking.  What for?  For shapes that make the apple.  Not color.  The shapes are coming from not only light, shadows and reflections, but also from imperfections in the apple itself.  And, then once the shapes were located, finding shapes within those far as they could visually go.  Then, after making a simple Value Scale at the bottom of their paper, they began to draw the shapes within the apple, instead of the apple itself.  The shapes all eventually connected, without having to make an outline.  And, the results?  Beautiful apples.  My motto for every student, "Draw exactly what you see, not what you think you see".  The brain is devious and it will make you think you see things that you have learned, though they may not actually be there.  One thing that my students learned in class, was that as soon as they saw the shapes and drew them in, they realized they continued to see more shapes and had to keep going into the drawing and revising.  Some of them got lost into the infinity maze of it.  And, that is what it feels like to see.

The next exercise we did in the same class, was the watercolor apple.  The students were given one color: red.  In order to make their value scale, (this time a Red Scale), they had to add water to the paint.  The paint from the tube then became the darkest color in a monochromatic (one color) scale.  There was no white or black added to this color.  The white, or first tone, was from the paper itself.  The students soon found they had to make a puddle of water and add a minute amount of pigment to get the lightest light red in the value scale. From there, they added a little bit more red and a little more, until they got to the end of their scale: paint directly from the tube.

Again, they stared at their apples for 5 minutes before starting.  This time, the exercise was easier to see, but harder to control with the watercolors.  In the end, the results were beautiful. They learned how to see shapes.  And, they completed the first of many value scales that they would continue to work on in their art.

The one piece of advice I have for everyone making these drawings: Be patient.  Value Scales get better each time you do them.  They are like playing scales on a piano.  And, seeing takes time.  It is a skill that we don't naturally know how to do and the more you practice, the more your hand-eye coordination will develop.  Practice makes perfect!  A tool that may be helpful, is a digital camera.  You can take a photo of your drawing or painting, look through the playback and see if it looks "flat", or if there are any odd shapes "floating", if there are, you can go back in and work some more on it.  And, keep on practicing!


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    • profile image

      Tom 6 years ago

      You are helping me a great deal. Thank you so much.

    • Laura Spector profile image

      Laura Spector 8 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand

      Thank you bahman_vip!

    • profile image

      bahman_vip 8 years ago from earth

      nice ....!

    • Laura Spector profile image

      Laura Spector 8 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand

      Thank you for letting me know! I hope it inspires you to make stuff!

    • christianesk profile image

      christianesk 8 years ago from The Global Hamlet

      Laura, thank you for this post. I find it both informative and interesting.


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