Maintaining correct values in painting is one of the top 4 principles for convincingly getting our message across to our viewers. One mistake that beginners often make is thinking a saturated color is lighter or darker than its actual value. Saturation’s luminosity does not equal value.
Saturation’s luminosity does not equal value.
I thought a short blog post about identifying the value of a saturated color might help you the next time you’re out painting on location or even from a photo in your studio.
Let me begin by defining what I mean by value and saturation.
Value Scale & the ‘Value’ of Squinting
Value refers to the lightness or darkness of an object or color.
As painters, we usually use a 9 or 10-step value scale. (Limiting the overall values in our paintings to 3 or 5 can make our paintings stronger, but that’s for a future post)
The popular and effective way to determine what’s dark and what’s light is to squint. How do we squint properly?
Some artists like to close one eye – I use both – it doesn’t matter as long as it works for you. Now, close your eyes until your lashes touch. Not too much though – if you close them too far everything becomes dark and fuzzy and you won’t see the light values.
After a while, squinting will become second nature and you won’t even notice how often you do it.
Squinting eliminates distracting details and will help you quickly see the lightest value and the darkest value. Once you have those, then see if you can figure out the mid value ranges (2-4 and 6-8 on the value scale).
Squinting will also help to simplify shapes into larger value patterns.
When it comes to figuring out the value of a seemingly bright saturated color, squinting is indispensable.
Wherever I go – driving in the car, sitting in an airport, singing in the choir at church – I instinctively squint to simplify values. I’m always thinking about how I would paint what I’m seeing.
I’ve gotten plenty of funny looks from people. A few times well-wishers asked if I needed glasses or if I was upset (think Clint Eastwood and Josey Wales).
Just smile and don’t worry about what anyone thinks. It’s worth looking a little odd.
While hue refers to the actual color, saturation is the intensity of that color. Often, we see an intense or luminous color and we assume it’s a lighter or darker value than it might be.
Here’s an example. I was working on a beginner’s video last week for the membership site and used this image of yellow roses that I took at the Minnetrista.
The colors in the roses are brilliant and strong while the colors in the leaves are much duller by comparison. The roses’ colors are ‘saturated’ in contrast to the leaves.
Look how bright those pink petals look at the bottom of the large middle rose. They are so full of color they seem to jump right out at us.
But how do the values of those colors compare with the values in the leaves? Are they lighter or darker?
If you look at the saturated hot pink petals compared to the dusty blue-green of the leaf in the white circles which is lighter?
Tough to tell with full color isn’t it? That’s the power of saturation.
The leaf looks lighter to me but then again, the pink is so luminous it’s tough to tell.
I took a dot of color from the pink petals and placed it on the green leaf (I let some of it overlap the white circle so you could easily see where it is placed). Then I converted the image to grayscale.
The values are basically identical.
More often, a saturated color will look lighter than it really is, and we will paint it too light relative to background colors.
Sum it Up!
How does this help us as artists and painters?
Understanding there’s a difference between saturation and value can help us avoid getting an object too light or dark relative to its surroundings.
We might also use that information to adjust surrounding values.
For instance, if we squinted and discovered that the leaves around those pink petals were all the same value as the flower petals, we might decide to paint the leaves a shade or two darker to create greater contrast. That’s what I did for the block-in painting above.
In the case of flowers, beginning painters think they need to add white to petal colors to lighten them. However, adding white can make them look chalky and bland.
In the image above the yellows and reds in the large flowers have no white paint mixed with them at all. White for me is always a last resort.
That knowledge helped me keep the rocks’ highlight colors in Song of the Lonely Mountain darker and more intense than they were in the photo. If I had just thought of the highlights as ‘bright’ I may have added too much white and lost much of the power in the saturated colors.
It also helped me maintain strong contrasts and correct values in the white rose petal shadows while painting Delicate Strength.
Alright, now go have fun playing with squinting while discovering the values of saturated colors you see in nature!
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Very helpful Bill. Thanks. The framing of Song on the Lonely Mountain is wonderful. It picks up colors in painting
and each (the frame & painting) complement each other. Perhaps a blog or demo on framing.
Excellent article Bill! Your explanation and examples were right on, and very helpful! BTW your painting of Song on the Lonely Mountain is gorgeous!!!
Excellent article Bill!! Your explanation and examples were right on and very helpful! LOVE your painting, Song of the Lonely Mountain – gorgeous!!
I learn a lot thanks for the reminder of squinting
Very helpful. Thanks a lot.
Hello, it’s midnight in California.
I just read the touching, heartfelt article from your wife ,” being married to an artist.” What a touching tribute to love and understanding.
Congratulations to both of you and your family for working together to find the good in each other and making it work !