by Donato

The control of value is one of the most basic elements in organizing a visual composition, from the simple abstract sketches through to the final rendering.  Many artists, myself included, tend to only design with value in the early phases of image development, pushing around shapes, lines, and edges in pencil and chalk either on white or toned papers, happy to leave color options off the table as we seek some sense of where we want an image to go.

Not to state that color is not important, but value is one of the strongest cuing anchors in our visual understanding of the world.  How we read a shape and its apparent relationship to surrounding objects is mainly determined by value (with exceptions given to high chromatic color contrasts). It is likely for this reason that most artists are comfortable and intuitively prefer to create initial designs with limited color.  As many of us may feel, it is hard enough to organize and conceive an image without having to introduce color into the game!

That said, I wanted to share a few images where color is certainly a huge factor in the overall mood and feel to the work, but also call out how value is playing a deep harmonizing bass line to color’s flamboyant show within the composition.  I do not believe in following rules when it comes to compositional design, but enjoy analyzing successful pieces to understand and consider the knowledge they reveal for possible manipulation and use in future works of my own.

Below we have a cityscape by Edward Cortez, with a brilliant use of orange in the sky, cafe lights, and reflections from the wet landscape.  A large mass of complimentary purple holds our interest in the center. 

Edward Cortez     A Paris Street  

Taking the work into black and white, what I want to point out here is how Cortez withheld deep darks for only
the mid-ground figures and objects.  Allowing them to float in a field
of gray values and creating a band of darkness moving horizontally
through the composition – a way to create a horizon line without having
to link it to deep objects in the distance.  Also by locating a large white figure with a likewise dark one in the center, the two masses play off each other and draw our eye into them as a point of interest, further centering our focus.

Looking at the image with a value bar inserted, we can see how Cortez also held off from using bright whites in his light sources, providing the feeling of under illumination you may perceive at dusk, and graying out his shadows rather than going too quickly to black. This graying out adds an atmosphering effect and increases the dropoff of the buildings on the right, making them appear more distant in the landscape, an effect further carried out into the deep space of the street to such an extent that the furthest point is almost the same value of the sky.  Cortez then uses color here to distinguish the shapes of the buildings against the sky to great effect.  A wonderful play of value and color together!

As a second example I turn to Alphonse Mucha.  I have never seen the original piece, thus cannot speak to the color accuracy of this image, but the values tell us so much!  A brilliant display of control over the entire surface of the work.

Alphonse Mucha   Spring Night    1910

Mucha used a subtle play of warmth in the this work to pull out the skin tones of the two figures from the background.  His combination of those color harmonies with a narrow range of values on the figures results in the reading of this image as if under starlight or through a magical hazy fog. Look again at the lower portion of the image where the figures bodies trail off into a near unified mass of gray value!

The value bar shows us just how narrow a range Mucha worked within, taking great care to manipulate the greatest sense of form and volume from as little contrast as he could manage. 

Lastly a strong graphic image by Fernand Pelez de Cordova.  I’ll let you analyze the work and come to your own conclusions.

Fernand Pelez de Cordova   Homeless   1884