Monday, March 8, 2010


“Reserve the lightest lights and darkest darks and bring values together.”

This is one of those bits of advice that you hear now and again, and no one ever explains why. Here’s one explanation that I’ve heard, and even repeated in those moments when I believed it (paraphrased): White has no color information in it. If you want the eye to be stimulated by color, you must put color in your whites. But if that were the case, why would watercolorists be repeatedly advised to save lots of whites, even to the finish of the painting? ??

The trouble with taking advice at face value is that the reasons for the advice get lost. Why would watercolor artists be advised to save whites, while oil painters are advised to get rid of them? One possible reason is the chalky effect that white can have on an oil painting, another subject which deserves some discussion... another time. Also, the white of watercolor paper is seldom a strong white, usually having a little warm off-white color to it.

Darks could be similar: in lending a warm or cool cast to the dark colors, you allow the eye some color information. Watercolors simply aren’t capable of making the strong darks that oils are, although sometimes artists get close. Even so, watercolor darks with no color to them, no warm or cool tendency, have a muddy look to them, and become unappealing pretty quickly.

So maybe the real reason to keep the pure white out of the oil painting and the deepest dark out of the oil and watercolor is that they just don’t look all that good.

What do you think?


Dwayne said...

I think some people can pull off high values...really dark darks and really bright lights. I do subscribe to Gruppe's practice that you save them for special areas so that your brights really pop near all of those mid values...his bright leaves stood out against a darker mid value sky because they were brighter and higher and value, but he only used his brights and darks sparingly.

Karen E. Lewis said...

Okay, that's one strategy for using value. But I like to think of technique in terms of what effects it can create, rather than in terms of rules. What effects do you get when you have mostly middle values, with, as you say, sparingly used brights and darks? What effects do you get with a full value range? Probably,as is usually the case, you gain some things and lose others.