My Old Bugaboo

I love words, and among the words I love best is bugaboo. It’s a playful-sounding word; it’s light-hearted, and it makes me laugh.

What, exactly isbugaboo?

According to Merriam-Webster, a bugaboo is “an imaginary object of fear.” It can also be defined as “something that causes fear or distress out of proportion to its importance.”

All right. I’ll accept that those are good definitions for the word, yet at the same time, I disagree just a bit. When it comes to art, you see, my bugaboo is far from imaginary. It’s also highly important, thus my distress is not out of proportion.

What is that old bugaboo of mine? Tonal values. Getting a broad range of values from light to dark. Having contrast in values, and all the while being sure my values are logical, meaning that I have shadows where shadows should be, a light source that is identifiable, and — the newest component of my bugaboo — that my paintings show an understanding of relative values.

Thus it is that I work with a lot of value studies and tonal underpaintings. And, thus it is that I’m never sure if what I’m doing is working or not.

Tonal (3)Consider this tonal underpainting I completed for a seascape I currently have in progress:

I’ll be tweaking a bit when I begin the oil painting. This underpainting, by the way, is done with acrylic.

I’m not happy with the shape of the rocks at the lower left. That can be easily changed.

What I’m most curious about, though, is the sky. I worked from an online reference photo, printed it out in black and white, and did my best to draw the scene accurately and to accurately show the values from the reference.

It may be difficult to see, but I do have brilliant white in places (following the reference), and I do have some dark darks — not quite black. I think my shadowed areas are correct, with all the shadows falling at the right and front of the rocks.

What I feel unsure about as I look at this tonal underpainting is the amount of darker values in the sky. And here is where my old bugaboo starts biting me.

What typically happens is that I tend to lighten up those too-dark places, or I darken the too-light places. Either way, I end up with a painting that has little tonal value. But if I leave those high contrasts as I paint, they always seem too jarring, too distracting. They stand out, call attention to themselves, and make me question my values all over again.

So, before I proceed on this painting, I’d love a few thoughts. How do my values look to you? Is there anything in this tonal underpainting that you would suggest changing, as far as the values go?

For comparison, here is my tonal underpainting and the black-and-white version of the reference photo. I did take a bit of creative license and increased the area of the sky. Maybe that’s why I’m now questioning that area.



Hmmm… in looking at them side-by-side, I can see that the upper left of my underpainting needs to be darker, the right side maybe a little lighter. I also see that I need a bit of gray toward the bottom right of the painting. That would definitely provide a better balance to the values.

What do you think? What do you see that I could change or improve in this tonal underpainting? Please, help me defeat that old bugaboo of mine! I will forever be grateful.


  1. There are various aspects to learning how to see and achieve a drawing or painting with pleasing values. Seeing and achieving can also be two separate learning processes, so don’t get discouraged. First, just because you’re using a photograph as a source doesn’t mean that the photograph intrinsically has good color/intensity values. Second, you as an artist have license to adjust those values to suit what pleases you.

    That said, here’s a couple of things you can do. To test whether your drawing/painting has strong values, get a piece of red cellophane from somewhere, even an old candy wrapper will do. Look at your work through the cellophane. If areas start to disappear or get mushy or indistinct you will know that the values are insufficiently separated as far as contrast and intensity are concerned.

    To practice seeing value changes so you can duplicate them, you can make a small investment in a bunch of graphite drawing pencils in every hardness from 6H to 6B. There are harder and softer versions, but these should suit your purpose just fine. Take a monochrome photo similar to the one you were working with in this blog post and attempt to reproduce every gradation you can see in the photo with these pencils. You don’t have to draw the whole photo, you might just pick a chunk of it that has a lot of variation. Try to see and reproduce even the tiniest change. Keep your pencils sharp, and remember that you can start with faint layers and darken as you go, putting the softest lead on top in the darkest areas. Keep comparing back and forth, and use your red cellophane to look at your drawing and the original side by side to see how close you’re getting.

    It’s a major project of training your brain to see what’s actually there. It may sound kind of like drudgery, but you can also treat it as a challenge and have some fun with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will do this. I have a great set of Tombow MONO drawing pencils, and using them as a way to recognize values is genius! Thank you so much for sharing that idea with me. I definitely need to get the red cellophane, as well. Thank you so much for taking time to comment and share your expertise. I truly appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

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