Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Classifying Values

John Singer Sargent admired the way Frans Hals classified his values (the light and dark tones in a painting):

"You must classify the values," Sargent wrote. "If you begin with the middle-tone and work up to the lights and down towards the darks -- so that you deal last with your highest lights and darkest darks -- you avoid false accents.


"That's what Carolus taught me. And Frans Hals. It's hard to find anyone who knew more about oil painting than Frans Hals."

18 comments:

Pat said...

Makes a LOT of sense.

Michael Prescott said...

This sounds like very good advice. I'm enjoying the fact that in the middle of this very temperate painting is an astonishingly black hat.

Stephen James. said...

Recently I've started to believe that values, drawing and edges are pretty much 4/5ths of the painting process with color being the icing on the cake. Color is just the thing that people tend to notice first.

One of my teachers put it in a way that I really liked.

"Color gets all of the attention, but value does all the work."

In other words color is the pretty sister that can get by on looks, and value is the smarter, less popular one that she has to cheat off of to get a passing grade.

Jason Juta said...

As a digital artist, working from an exact middle grey 'undercoat' helps me to ensure my tones are correct, despite monitor variations. Good to see the masters did the same!

cegebe said...

I’ve been taught to work in a different way – to begin with the darkest accents and then go from dark to light. I think that there can be some advantage of this way when working ‘alla prima’ in oils; I’ve found it hard to paint dark accents into brighter, wet paint without ending up with a patch of mud that’s all wrong.
On the other hand, I find the overall picture harder to control if I begin with the darkest accents; my results tend to be better, when I follow Sargent’s advice and begin somewhere in the middle, with one average for the shadow side and one or two for the light, and then add the brightest parts and the deepest darks in another pass, using glazes, scumbles, heavy impasto strokes or whatever trick I might have up the sleeve. I find it quite hard to judge right from the beginning where the darkest accents should be, and they rarely play a central role in the overall definition of the picture. So, I think I more often than not will find myself in line with Sargent and Hals. I guess I can live with that.

Daroo said...

I've been wondering if he meant the exact middle tone (of say the flesh) or if he meant the middle tone of your values in the light and also the middle tone of your values in the shadow?

Can anybody recommend a good book on Frans Hals?

Nickname unavailable said...

There are a lot of little tools that are out there to help an artist find the accurate values. The color wheel company makes a "Gray Scale & Value Finder" card you can see here http://colorwheelco.com/ for $3.50. The X-rite co. offers the $40 "Colorchecker Mini" which is based on the Munsell system, see: http://www.xrite.com/product_overview.aspx?ID=1192 and then there is an interesting value checking tool offered by J. Carder at: http://www.cardersupplies.com/color-checker.html

jeff f said...

"It's hard to find anyone who knew more about oil painting than Frans Hals."

I would agree with that statement.
I would add Rubens and Rembrandt to that list as well as Titian.
I was looking at a small portrait study by Hals last week at the MFA here in Boston. It's small, about 5" x 8" or so. It's such an amazing little painting with every stroke counting. Hals was a master of using the brush, which is what Sargent was attracted to.

K. W. Broad said...

Really good advice, and something I tend to forget quite often. My first experience with working in color was through markers (Prisma/Tria) where you usually start out light and work your way darker, and with color pencils (Prisma as well) where you work from dark to light. The habits have carried over to my painting, especially working dark to light, and I have to keep reminding myself to try working from the midtones.

Rod said...

Wikipedia has a different photo of this painting that I would think is the more accurate reproduction as to value and color. Anyone know the original well enough to judge?

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/92/Frans_Hals_002b.gif

jeff f said...

Here is a link to ARC images and Hals' page. 106 images...
http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artist.php?artistid=797
Of course it's better to see his work in the flesh.

I forgot to mention Velasquez who was also a favorite of Sargent's/

jeff f said...

Frans Hals

I would highly recommend buying the Munsell gray scale booklet. I use it all the time. I always have 9 gray scales on my palette, as Reilly recommended.

Roberto said...

I tend to work from the lighter-middle values and build out the lighter tints first and then the darker tones from there. I don’t usually go into the darker shades until I resolve the brighter, lighter and higher chromatic passages first. This helps me prevent making a muddy mess of everything, it keeps things crisp and clean. I drop in the darkest darks at the very end, with the highlights to finish. The danger with this approach is in misjudging your values and their relative contrast to the darkest values, this is where your thumbnails, comps, and machetes are so valuable. It’s good to know where you are going before you start your journey, so that you recognize your destination when you arrive.
-RQ

Tayete said...

But I wonder: do you reserve (as in watercolors with the white zones) your darkest spots and not apply any paint there? Because it is usually said that transparency is adviceable in shadows and impastos in bright spots.
Mmmmm...now I reread this, it may seem a noob question, but that's what I am :-)

Nickname unavailable said...

Another interesting "value checking tool" is this gizmo they sell here:

http://www.pictureperfectviewfinder.com/

Roberto said...

Hey Tay…
I assume you are responding to my post.
I usually work very large, from either a good comp or a finished, scaled down, machete so reserving the dark zones not only allows the rich darks to be applied over a clean (bright) ground but it also saves on the quantity of dark mud you have to apply and push around. This is not always possible with smaller easel paintings or when building up an alla prima piece or in plein air… but building up the darks from middle tones thru the darker tones and into the shades gives you the opportunity to play with colors in the shadows and the edges and the transitions into the shadows. While we’re on the subject of shadows, I try not to mix my rich darks with black when I can help it, to maintain a luminous shadow, and when I do use black for its graphic qualities or as a decorative element, I always mix it with a transparent color or earthtone to make it warm or cool.
(I'ld be interested in James' take on this)
If you weren’t responding to my post… “never-mind”! -RQ

Tayete said...

Thanks Roberto, very useful comment. Now it seems clear to me what was meant in James' post and yours too.

James Gurney said...

Daroo: I agree with your hunch that Sargent meant you should see and establish the the middle tone for a given passage, not some overall gray for the whole picture.

Roberto and Tay: I think you said it as well as I could. As understand Tay's question, you were wondering whether placing a middle tone early on might make it impossible to later leave a clean, transparent dark accent because it might pick up some of the white.

I'd have two answers to that. If you're working alla prima, you can keep the early layers thin enough so that you can still drop in a dark accent into them. In other words you don't need to save a patch of raw canvas for those accents.

And if you're placing your accents over dry passages, you could use transparent touches to sink down to the darkest values, just as you would do with watercolor.

I think Sargent's advice about classifying values applies just as much to pencil and charcoal drawing.