Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

Seeing With a Wheel: Using a Value Scale


Using a value scale to assist your efforts when painting out in nature can be useful, especially when there is a lot of glare, like in snow painting, beach scenes, or just regular sunny days.

The need arises when you have a value that you are trying to reproduce from nature and at the same time are staring at a white canvas while mixing on your tinted or un-tinted palette, which might be in shadow or bathed in sunlight. Couple these three factors with a blinding daylight and you often have a situation where it is easy to be off a few degrees on your value choices. Does this sound a bit like juggling to you?

So what is a painter to do: guess, hope for the best? Like anything else there is usually a solution if you look for it, and possibly one already out there that someone else is willing to share. In my case, there were good solutions, but I decided to take it a step further to meet my own needs and come up with a solution that was a slight twist from the wealth of knowledge on the subject of “value identification.” But before I get to that, let me briefly discuss one of the solutions in use that is tried and true.

For centuries artists have been using a standard procedure known as “keying in.” This means that the artist paints the first value relationship on his or her canvas “correctly” — correctly meaning that the values are not too dark or too light. The idea here is to paint one correct value followed by another, and another until your painting is done. The first value has to be right in order for the second and third and so on. In this way one value is built in relation to the one preceding it until the painting is finished. Thus, it can be seen that keying in the first initial value too dark or too light can have disastrous results.

Many artists have a natural knack for keying their paintings correctly, but more than likely they have learned that keying in is usually best accomplished by choosing the darkest dark first and then judging all the other colors in relation to that. Choosing the first dark is usually easier because dark colors are the easiest to identify. But what if your first dark is not as dark as black? An instance of that might be painting on a foggy day, or choosing a subject that is far away, as in the case of a cloud painting, where you might only feature a sliver of land in the distance to set the stage for the clouds. In this situation you would have to choose a dark halftone to key your painting to. It’s these in-between values that are often harder to identify, especially in the glare of strong light.

Welcome the value scale! Hey, don’t feel like you are a failure as an artist if you have to rely on a mechanical aid from time to time. The more you know at the start of the painting process the more likely you are to have a successful session. Occasionally a good value scale or a good viewfinder makes all the difference in the world. For this reason I developed a tool for my own use in the field that has helped me quite a bit in these situations.  It’s a double value wheel which helps making comparison between two adjacent values easier. After years of use and some prodding by my students I am making it available in limited quantities. I call it the Value Key Finder. To give you an idea of how it works, here is a sample of the instructions on the reverse side of the tool:

The Value Key Finder
Created by an Artist, for Artists
The Value Key Finder is a field tested tool created by Plein Air Painter John Hughes, to make outdoor value decisions easier.  The main problem with getting correct values on location is the distracting glare that often makes value comparisons between nature, palette, and canvas confusing. The process is greatly simplified by using the
Value Key Finder.

Since correctly “keying in” your first values is so important, look for a value relationship in nature that you want to duplicate. One example might be – a dark tree trunk against a distant mountain. Study this relationship closely before making your color choices. Taking the time to get this first relationship correct is worth the extra time and effort.

Step 1 – On the small inner-wheel, select the approximate value of the tree trunk. Then, on the large outer-wheel, select the approximate value of the distant mountain. Line up both selected values by turning the wheels. Carefully observe the relationship of the chosen values to see if they look right compared to the subject.

Step 2-.Mix two separate colors to represent the tree and mountain; then, daub a dot of each onto their corresponding wheels. Once you have a value match, start painting.

Step 3- Use this key relationship to make all other value decisions on the painting. You can continue using the Value Key Finder to assist your choices. Then wipe the laminated wheels clean.

Now, a word of caution on using a mechanical aid to find values; first of all, any of these tools can become a crutch, which can cause the artist to rely on it too heavily. Second, there is a misconception that many artists have about the practical use of a value scale. Those little punched out holes are useless for looking through to compare values on the scale to an object in nature. Really? Yeah, sorry! That kind of comparison is very limited in its scope and accuracy. If you are trying to compare your value scale to nature in this way you might consider changing your approach, since you will most likely be frustrated by the results. Unfortunately, that is the bad news, but don’t throw away the scale — those holes can be useful for studying the values of paintings in a museum or even making comparisons to an art magazine; study of this kind is always useful. The reason for this is simple and I would refer you to the 4th chapter in Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting for a complete understanding of Angles and their Consequent Values to drive home this point. In a nutshell, it’s this: if you hold the value scale flat like the flat plane of the ground, its values are going to look lighter than if you hold it vertically. So the question becomes, at what angle do you hold the value scale to get the same lighting effect that you are seeing in nature on a sunny day or even an overcast one for that matter? That is why the most productive use of a value scale is better done by making mental comparisons with your subject rather than a purely mechanical comparison. Besides, once you have established an accurate key on the painting surface, it’s time to put the value scale away and start using this key to develop the rest of the work. The more you engage your mind in this way, the better you will become at judging values without the use of a mechanical aid in most situations. For this reason I have not included holes in my Value Key Finder, opting to train the eye as well as the mind.

Have I started producing these wheels yet? A few, but I’m still thinking about how to mass produce them while keeping the cost down.  Any ideas? Let me know what you think.

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