Last week I attended a Christmas luncheon hosted by one of the art clubs I belong to. It’s always fun now to be around other artists, to talk about projects we’re working on, and to even share photographs of art works we’ve recently completed.
The food was delicious, the friendship was warm and convivial, and in lieu of our regular meeting program we enjoyed watching a tutorial from Susan Jenkins at Monet Café — a group made up of artists from all over the world who work mostly with soft pastels.
I’ve had mixed success with soft pastels in the past, and it’s a medium I’d like to work with more in the coming year. The tutorial we watched, however, had good advice for artists working in any medium. It was all about colors and values.
My ears perked up at once when Ms. Jenkins began talking about using non-traditional colors in landscape art. Oh, yes, I wanted to hear more. I’ll admit to wanting to do a face-palm as she continued talking because she reminded me of one of the single, most important elements of art.
“It’s fine to use non-traditional colors in landscape paintings,” she said, “as long as you get the values right.”
Oh, yes. Values. Getting them right. I know how important that is in drawing and painting, yet all the while I’ve recently been playing around with color combinations in landscapes…oops, I’d completely forgotten the whole idea of values.
I felt a little silly sitting there, thinking back to my recent paintings. I’ve had a lot of fun focusing on colors, but it’s every bit as important — perhaps even more important — that I first learn to get the values right in my paintings, no matter what colors I might be using.
Earlier that morning I’d created another fanciful landscape. I refer to it as fanciful because I was again using non-traditional colors — red-orange contrasted with blue-green.
The painting, however, did not turn out well. I once again ended up getting my colors a bit muddy, but even worse was the composition. My trees somehow turned into a huge mass of blue-green. But, in keeping with my new rule of not wiping away anything I paint, I saw it through to the ugly, bitter end, adding in a few bushes here and there, and creating a little pathway into the woods.
Yes, you’ve seen that scene before. I’m using that “woodland path” idea as a practice theme, taking the same elements — a lighted sky, a stand of trees, bushes, a pathway, and a foreground with some sort of detail — and painting it again and again.
On that particular day, my painting was a disaster, probably because my mind was already skipping ahead to the casserole I was going to bake to take with me, questions about what I was going to wear to the luncheon, and thoughts about remembering to stop at the grocery store to pick up cream for the dessert I was making for my husband that night. I wasn’t concentrating on painting, obviously.
After returning from the luncheon, I looked at my forlorn little painting — it’s an 8 x 10 — and I shook my head not merely because of the poor color-blending, not only because of the overgrown clump of trees, but because of the poor range of values. I then made a photograph of the painting and de-saturated it so that I could get a better look.
Here it is.
Yes, I did get a bit of light in the sky and on the pathway, as well. But overall, it’s little more than a blur of gray. The sky should be much, much lighter. I should have darker areas of shadow within the foliage of the trees. And where are the trunks and branches? They’ve been gobbled up in the dullness of the gray. I know, too, that the bright white of the path is too bright. The lightest areas of the ground should still be darker than the sky.
So while I did have some variance in the values, it wasn’t enough to make this a successful painting. Even had my colors been perfect and clear, the narrow range of values would still have made this lackluster and uninteresting.
Seeing the Monet Café tutorial was definitely eye-opening for me, and I’d like to say that I’ll be more mindful of values in every painting I do now. Truthfully, though, I know this is something I’ll need to keep working on. I learn it one day and forget it the next.
Call me out on it in future paintings, please. When you see me neglecting the values in my landscapes, remind me to be more watchful. Remind me that skies are light, that the earth reflects some of that light, and that objects like trees are dark by comparison. Remind me that I need highlights and shadows, and that no matter what colors I use, the results won’t be believable unless I consider the values.