STOP CHASING THE COLORS! DEVELOP ONE PAINTING SKILL AT A TIME
You’d be surprised by how easy it is, especially when you plan your self-education
Have you tried it all? You watched countless videos, took lessons, even bought courses, collected materials (mostly useless), and the more you tried, the less progress you made. You tried it so many times, and yes, some paintings actually did not look all that bad, but others were a disappointment. Now you don’t what to do, or what is your style, and you like your painting even less than before.
It is easy to lose oneself in the roaring ocean of information. So let’s step back, take a deep breath, and reevaluate the whole situation.
FIRST THING FIRST: HOW TO UNDERSTAND VALUE
Value is how light or dark the color is, on a scale of black to white. Value is definitely the most important component of a well-designed painting.
A general rule I like to follow for painting is:
- To increase (lighten) the value of a color – add white and/or yellow.
- To decrease (darken) the value of a color – add blue, black and/or raw umber.
Value should not be mixed with color. Different colors may have the same value. If you take color out of the picture, then you will be left with just a range of black to white shades, with black being the lowest and white being the highest value.
This is why I highly recommend beginner level painters making as many monochrome paintings as possible to improve their painting skills. Understanding values makes it easier to render depth/volume in a painting without having to worry about the right color.
Value is more important than the color used in a painting because value (lights and darks) really sets the structure of your painting.
A value scale is below, starting with the highest value (white) to the lowest value (black), with grayscale in between. There are color value scales, where a color, let’s say blue, is mixed with an increasing amount of white, and its value increases from mid range (5 in this scale) to almost white. And by adding black we decrease the value. By adding white or black we desaturate the color. This is why it is extremely difficult to learn both colors and values in painting at the same time.
Values: High Key Versus Low Key
You will often hear paintings described as being high key or low key. This refers to the overall value scale used in the painting. A high key painting has a high-value scale (light) whilst a low key painting uses a low-value scale (dark).
High or low key paintings often have a very limited value range. Below is a low key painting of mine:
And here is a high key painting I made not long ago.
SET YOUR VALUES STRAIGHT
Let’s talk about why values (lights and darks) are crucial in creating depth and volume and thus improve your painting
We all heard the term value multiple times and we know it is important in painting. In fact, it is one of two most important things in a successful painting design, and they are composition and values. Old time black and white photographs and movies prove the point.
The rule of thumb is any good black and white picture will look beautiful in color, while not all color pictures would still look good in black and white. More that that, if you photograph of a painting you deem as failure, and turn it into a black and white, you will see where it needs improvement. Very often if there is anything wrong about the painting, but you cannot put your finger on it, it is the mistake in values.
A great way to practice values is to paint a monochrome painting. To do so you need to set up a still life, or take a picture of anything else you would like to paint and set it to black and white. Does the photo still look good in black and white? If not, enhance the contrast in photo editing program. If that does not help, try to take the same photo with more/less light, or change the angle of light.
Then look at your subject and try to generalize the details. Group medium size shapes into the large abstract masses. Take 3 minutes and watch the video below “What is notan” to analyze the composition of the painting.
PICK HUES, TECHNIQUES AND STYLES
Look again at your subject or the reference photograph. Take it down to 4 main values: darkest, lightest and two middle values. Paint the shapes that you see, forget about the object you are trying to depict. Squint really hard, as if you are blinded by a very bright light.
Hues (Colors) in monochrome painting are usually black + white, but often it can be a combination of burnt umber + white, or, for a more cool tint, artists use indigo (or any dark blue) + white. Of course, any very dark color can be used for monochrome painting, there are no rules about it.
Technique is also very important. Acrylic paint allows to use a whole range of techniques, from impasto to washes, it can imitate ink and watercolors. Experiment boldly, the final result may pleasantly surprise you. If you want to get more info on acrylic painting techniques, read this article “Acrylic painting hacks: paint handling techniques to improve your skill set” which will add variety to the effects you can achieve in your paintings.
Style is another crucial element of the painting. Do not be afraid to imitate, emulate and mix different styles: western style, modernism, cubism, surrealism, expressionism, abstract style, impressionism, pointilism, art nouveau, eastern style, and many others. Being aware of these styles and able to use them is a great way to broaden and improve your painting skills. If you never tried pointilism, I strongly advise you to give this technique a try. It might take a bit longer, but the result is way worth the time spent. As Bob Ross said, “Let’s get crazy!”
THIRD STEP: FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT
Finding your artistic confidence is a crucial skill in painting
Knowing yourself and what excites you sounds like straightforward advice, but sometimes even the most assured artists over-analyze and come to a stand still. Making a bunch of monochrome paintings will help you boost your skill in creating volume, rendering aerial perspective, luminosity and tonal contrast.
Confidence is important in all aspects of life, but especially in art. We all admire the artists who boldly lay down their brush strokes, and show mastery of the composition. Just remember, no painters are born with artistic confidence. So let’s have a look at the roadmap.
Winning or learning
Many times we start a work with a specific vision and in the end, the result doesn’t match the original vision. We consider these works as failures. It’s important to remember this is how we learn. We do not learn artistic confidence by watching countless videos, it takes a lot of hours of practice.
Over time, after we have experienced multiple “failures”, we may give in to despair. We begin to second guess our decisions, and we lose the joy of art-making. Our brush strokes become timid and our paintings look stale. And at some point, the thought of starting another painting may just give us a feeling of anxiety. Just remember, no one had an easy victory in this art battle. Michelangelo once stated:
“If people knew how hard I had to work to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.”
With a simple shift of focus, however, we can view these negative experiences differently. Let me explain what I mean…
As an artist, every time I “fail”, I actually grow artistically through this experience. It is a painful process, every next failure being less painful and the recovery being faster. But now that I know what doesn’t work, I am equipped to make better judgements and to do what works almost right away.
Consequently, each time we fail, we grow and become more efficient. And this doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes we fail spectacularly after a recent success. Thankfully, our arena is our studio, and no one will know about it, unless we tell them.
Road to mastery is paved with failures. When we look at a master artist we admire, we don’t see all of the “failures” that forged his skill level and confidence.
“Failures, repeated failures are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.” – C. S. Lewis
The first failure is always the most scary and the most memorable one: the first ride on a bike, first car ride, first date, and so on. We can think of all those terrifying “first times”, but we tend to forget about the second and third attempts, which, by the way, were uncomfortable or painful, too.
And art is no different. The quicker you paint your first dozen of monochrome paintings, the more your confidence will grow. I would advise to complete these paintings as quickly as possible, put the dates on the back, and store them away. Do not revise, correct or try to improve them. Move on.
Make a folder, and store all your “failures” there. It will help you track your growth, and enable you to appreciate your progress. In the end, artistic confidence is about perseverance and relentless art practice.
Illustrator Dave Rapoza takes a less methodical approach. “I don’t think you can truly find your voice without failing over and over and never settling for comfort,” he says. “Don’t limit yourself by being afraid to show the weakness of what you do. Address it and put it out there on the forefront. Show people what it takes to achieve your best version of you as an artist.”
The more you know your materials, the more your confidence grows. You know what to do, and what to expect. You are more comfortable during the process of art-making, and your painting skills improve steadily. This is when you start to have this joy of painting, Bob Ross was talking about: “There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.”