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How to Use Value Studies to Plan Your Painting Composition

Updated on May 18, 2017
Robie Benve profile image

Robie:an artist believing in the power of positive thinking, she paints images intended to bring joy the viewer and loves to share art tips.

What Is a Value Study and Why Is It Important?

Learn how to test out value and tone of your masses to plan a good painting.
Learn how to test out value and tone of your masses to plan a good painting. | Source

What Is a Thumbnail Sketch?

Thumbnail sketches are used by artist as visual annotation, to jot down the essence of a scene. They are usually done quickly, in pen or pencil, and are no bigger than a square with 3 inch (8cm) sides.
The focus of the sketch is to create a value study and to work out an interesting composition.
A value study is a simplified drawing that shows the positioning of light and dark masses, and how they relate to each other.

You Are Doing a Thumbnail Sketch Wrong if…

A thumbnail is a quick study of a potential composition, not a fully rendered pencil drawing.

It is small, not a mid or big size drawing, where you work out many questions about value, shape, edges, etc.

It is monochromatic, not a colorful mini-version of the final painting.

The sketch needs to make sense only to you, the artist, as annotation. It is not meant to be seen by anyone else but you.

Hue is the name given to a color.

Value is how dark or light that color is.

They are inherently related, and it is vital to be conscious of both.

— Kevin Macpherson

How many thumbnail sketches do you usually do before you start painting?

See results

Quick composition study I did before starting a painting outdoors

A quick line plan to test out the composition of a plein air painting. First I did an horizontal layout, then I tries the vertical. Kind of messy, but sketches need to make sense to the artists only.
A quick line plan to test out the composition of a plein air painting. First I did an horizontal layout, then I tries the vertical. Kind of messy, but sketches need to make sense to the artists only. | Source

How Do I Use a Value Study?

Thumbnail drawings represent the main value masses of a composition. You can use them either as memory aid and as planning tool. They can help you remember important elements of a subject, what struck you when you first saw the scene, why you found it interesting or beautiful, how was the light, etc.

The main reason why I use them is for planning my paintings. I like to try several possible compositions quickly, before settling for the most pleasing, and start painting. The first composition I try is almost never the best one; it takes a few attempts and corrections to find a winning layout.

Thumbnails are also great when visiting museums, to take visual notes of paintings you like. I find that when I really like a painting, it’s not the subject matter that makes the painting successful, but the underlying composition, the distribution of darks and lights; making a sketch of it, helps visualizing that.

By doing thumbnail sketches, your ability to recognize and organize the lights and darks in your work will improve and you will create better structures, with inspiring value designs.

Why Is Drawing a Thumbnail Better Than Taking a Photo?

Simplification is the first step in the creation of a work of art. Drawing a thumbnail, Include only what is essential for the subject matter, disregard details, focus on the big shapes.

The camera records everything in sight, without distinction. With a thumbnail, you are in charge. You decide how to crop the scene, what is most important, and the unimportant elements and details that is better to eliminate.

How Do You Make a Thumbnail Sketch?

Start by drawing a rough frame, usually a rectangle, though proportions depend on what size canvas you are planning to use.

The goal is to depict your scene in a very simple sketch, establishing the positioning of the major elements.

Very simply, start by outlining the major shapes. Ignore smaller shapes and details.

Don’t try to be careful or correct in your drawing. The idea is to design and place the shapes without worrying about it.

Certain things, even if you see them in the scene, you may want to change or eliminate from the sketch. Many times, it’s productive to edit things out, making the scene simpler.

Draw very quickly. You don’t want an exact replication; you want to draw what strikes you. You are making an artistic sketch, an interpretation, of what you see and what you like in that particular scene.

It’s a good idea to make a short notation of the feeling that the scene inspires you. What has gotten you so excited that you felt inspired to sketch that particular scene? Write a few words next to your sketch as a reminder.

As an alternative to pencil or pen, I like to use grayscale value markers.

How Many Values to Use in a Thumbnail Drawing?

Painting is all about relationships between shapes. Don’t worry what the drawn shapes look like; your focus is on establishing the relationships between values.

I like to use three values in my sketches, in any case, no more than five total.

Leave light elements the color of your paper, use you pencil or pen to shade darker elements. In a three-value sketch, I use white, mid gray, and darker gray or black.

As an alternative to pencil or pen, I like to use grayscale value markers. I have a set of six different values, from light to dark, and each has a thin and a thick tip, that I can flexibly use for lines or to fill value shapes. For an example see video below.

Squinting will help you group similar values together into big shapes. Some mid values are harder to represent in a simplified way. Again, squinting will help understand to what shape they belong to.

Make more than one thumbnail. Try a few potential variations, learning and improving from sketch to sketch.

Drawing Negative Space

Pay attention to the negative shapes (spaces between objects) as you draw the value masses. Negative spaces are also masses and they help getting the proportions right.

Let your negative shapes reinforce the positive shapes, and make sure you create variation in the design. Dark and light shapes should not be equal in size, one has to be dominant.

Example of Value Study and Final Painting

I've been taking en plein air* painting classes with artist Joseph Lombardo. At one class he painted the demo below, starting with a nice value sketch.

Both in the sketch and in the painting, value contrast is used to clarify the ground-object relationship, and to create an interesting composition. Notice how parts of the trunks are light on dark, others are dark on light.

Lombardo mixed colors very carefully, in order to represent the value relationship between each trunk, and parts of the same trunk, to the background.

Some are light trunks over light ground, others are dark over light.

In the creation of the value study, the artist emphasized the value relationships, grouping darks and lights together and pushing contrast, for stronger impact.

Value Study of Landscape Painting

Value Study made before a painting demo, by Joseph Lombardo, all rights reserved.
Value Study made before a painting demo, by Joseph Lombardo, all rights reserved. | Source

Painting from Value Sketch

The artist mixed colors very carefully, in order to represent the value relationship between each trunk and the background.Painting demo done en plein air following the value study above, by Joe Lombardo, all rights reserved
The artist mixed colors very carefully, in order to represent the value relationship between each trunk and the background.Painting demo done en plein air following the value study above, by Joe Lombardo, all rights reserved | Source

Consideration While Drawing Additional Thumbnail Sketches

Looking at the first thumbnail, ask yourself “Is there any way I can improve it?”. You can change completely the feeling of the painting by making an area darker and/or another lighter.

What happens if you really lighten up the sky?

What happens if you light up the building?

What happens if you darken the bush?

Look at all your small studies and decide which one you like more.

In your value plan, you assign values to shapes.

As you paint, you are assigning colors to those shapes.

— Kevin Macpherson

Defining the Focal Point

Pay attention to where you create the area that attracts lots of attention, it becomes the focal point. Play around with the focal point. Test different options.

Looking at the outlines of the big shapes, decide what area you want to emphasize, that will be the focal point of the painting. Think about how to make things important.

Wherever dark meets light it creates an area of high interest. Also, in contrast with big simple shapes, more detailed shapes attract attention and draw the viewer in.

In general, at the focal point, you may find:

  • The strongest value contrast.
  • The sharpest edges.
  • High color contrast.
  • More details.

Value Studies of Famous Paintings

I made these value studies looking at some of my favorite impressionist paintings in a museum. I used value markers.
I made these value studies looking at some of my favorite impressionist paintings in a museum. I used value markers. | Source

Once I have a Thumbnail of Choice, What Do I Do?

Set your thumbnail of choice next to your canvas, where it’s easily seen. Use it as guide for drawing your subject on the canvas. Keep looking at the thumbnail for value masses positioning and composition. Make minor adjustments as you paint.

The value study will be your reminder of what impression you were aiming for in your painting.

When introducing color, your value masses should stay consistent with the value plan.

When mixing the paint, make sure you are staying within the scheme of your darks and lights, in accordance with your plan.

Paint looking at the scene in front of you, but keep your value study in sight.

Keep squinting and comparing what is happening on the canvas to the thumbnail, double check that you are creating consistent shapes of value.

Some of My Thumbnail Studies in My Sketchbook

Sketching down the scene before starting painting helps testing the best option for the composition and positioning of elements.
Sketching down the scene before starting painting helps testing the best option for the composition and positioning of elements. | Source

You Can Create Thumbnails on the Computer

It might be quicker for you to create a digital value study.

Here are a couple of ways you can do it:

  1. Take a photo of the scene you want to paint.
    Convert to gray scale, by desaturating.
    Posterize it.
    This will not simplify and edit elements that you may want removed or changed, but it’s a quick way to go if you already have a winning composition. You can use this digital image as starting point for a thumbnail drawing, applying some editing and further simplification.

2. Instead of using paper and pen, you can draw your value study using a digital drawing app, and proceed exactly the same way as you would in the paper version.

A couple of value studies of two impressionist paintings from a book. When a painting strikes me, I realized that it's the composition that gets me excited, and I try to make a visual note of that.
A couple of value studies of two impressionist paintings from a book. When a painting strikes me, I realized that it's the composition that gets me excited, and I try to make a visual note of that. | Source

It May Feel Like a Waste of Time, but It’s Not

Often, we are so eager to jump into the painting as soon as possible, that taking the time to do thumbnail sketches may feel like a hindering activity.

However, those minutes spent sketching, will save time in the long run and you will end up with a better painting.

Some artists that have been painting for many years might be able to see the idea so clearly there's no need to do a thumbnail. They may have found a way to do the exploring right on the canvas with just a few light strokes of the brush.

However, I strongly recommend always doing several trial compositions before starting painting, especially if you are a beginner.

Video example of how to block the big areas with value markers

En Plein Air Painting

*En Plein Air is French for "in open air", meaning outdoors. Painting en plein air is when you bring your painting gears out with you and paint on location.

© 2017 Robie Benve

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    • Robie Benve profile image
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      Robie Benve 5 days ago from Ohio

      Wow thanks Penny, two great reviews in one comment, I feel so grateful! Glad you found it informative and your daughter thinks it's great as well.

    • Penny Sebring profile image

      Penny Sebring 7 days ago from Fort Collins

      Wow, this is great information. I am an artist of words, I can't even manage a straight line, but my daughter is a sketch and comic artist, and she thought this was a great article as well.

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