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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Learning to Design with Value

Value study demo - oil 6x6"

In order to learn sophisticated painting techniques it is valuable to break them down into simple exercises and build up from there.

Something that skilled painters excel at is designing with value. What this means is that you don't paint objects or things. You see the shapes of light and shadow that these 'things' are made up of, and paint those.

The skillful part comes in knowing where to push values, making some slightly darker or lighter than they actually are, in order to link shapes. This creates a pattern of light and shadow that forms a strong design - the structure of your painting - and when done well, everything else that is built upon it will hold together in a powerful way.

The challenge for this simple exercise is to create your value study with only 4 values (+ white for highlights). By limiting values you are forced to designate the same values to some shapes that are in reality different in value. Shapes will naturally connect into an interesting pattern as a result.

Things to Keep in Mind As You Proceed

  1. Determine the important big shapes that fill the painting surface. Remember the shapes of the shadows and background are AS important as the shapes of the objects themselves.
  2. Draw out these shapes, filling the canvas.
  3. Block the shapes in with paint using only 4 values.
  4. Begin modelling form by introducing intermediate values within the shapes.
  5. Refine edges - hard and soft edges can be determined by squinting down. If an edge disappears when squinting - make it soft. High contrast areas will often be harder edged. Use your powers of observation to lead you.
  6. Finish with highlights and accents (small lights and darks) to complete the story.
The most magical thing happens when you find a great place to connect two shapes and the design starts to find its way. I definitely find this way more fun to do in paint than doing a little thumbnail sketch in pencil, not sure why. Give a try and see what you think.

Since I paint these studies alla prima with impasto passages, I don't then paint a color version on top. If you want to follow with color in a grisaille fashion, you could either paint your value study very thinly and wait for it to dry, or paint it in acrylic (as long as your canvas isn't oil primed) followed by oil on top.

If I want to do an actual finished painting, I will start a new painting using the value study as reference for the underlying structure I want to stay true to. If the colour or detail start to make things busy and the structure gets lost, I have the value study to lead me back to a sound design.


  1. Thank you for this exercise and for your blog. I can use all the help I can get and I love following your blog.

  2. Great post! You detailed explanation is very easy to follow. I will be trying this exercise.

  3. These are lovely Liz, I am so happy to have found your blog :) I have gotten some inspiration from some of your posts.

  4. Great advice! As a self taught painter I'm always trying to learn and improve. I'm so glad I found your blog. I've enjoyed reading your blogs. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight. Do you ever do workshops "down south":)?