Right Idea — Wrong Execution

I’m going to start this post — as I so often do — far afield from the world of art. Yesterday afternoon my husband and I watched an episode of Nova we had recorded earlier. It was about statistics, the science of probabilities, and all the many algorithms in use around us.

Before we went to bed, my husband checked the porch and found an Amazon package there. I was shocked. Not that finding packages from Amazon is unusual. But finding this particular package at that particul time made me do a double take.

“Talk about algorithms,” I explained. “This was obviously the result of one of those.” I said this because the package contained a pad of canvas paper — the kind I’m using for a lot of my oil painting practices. I’d ordered a pad recently, and yesterday, being down to the last sheet, I figured I’d better put in another order.

At the same time, some computer at Amazon was obviously doing a bit of figuring on its own. “Let’s see,” I can imagine it saying. “This woman ordered a pad of canvas paper, and most likely it’s used up now, so she’ll probably be ordering another. We’d better be sure to have it at a warehouse close to her.”

So, yes, indeed. I ordered my new pad of canvas paper yesterday morning and it arrived yesterday evening. Algorithms are mind-boggling, at times.

Now, about that canvas paper. It’s good for practice exercises. When I’m doing color-mixing or practicing specific brush stroke techniques, it’s great. I have to say, however, that it’s not quite so great for “quick study” paintings.

Usually I do my quick studies on canvas panels. Over recent days, however, I’ve been using my canvas pad. The studies I’m doing are a bit more experimental. They’re more like exercises than actual painting.

Here is my most recent “quick study”:

“Late Summer” – Oil study on canvas paper 9 x 12

Had I done this on a canvas panel, I’d most likely go back to do a bit of “tweaking”. While it’s “not bad”, it’s not all that it could have been. It’s not even all that it should have been. It was, you see, an attempt at working with values. While I did manage to get most of my dark values in place, my lightest values — highlights from the sun — are nowhere to be seen.

I began with a quick “thumbnail” sketch on which I drew out the basic shapes and marked the darkest areas. I looked next at the lightest areas. Finally, I indicated where the mid-range values would be.

I then repeated my drawing on the canvas page, using a small brush with thinned raw umber paint to delineate the basic shapes and suggest the positions of the trees. I worked next on putting in dark areas. As I did with my initial drawing, I then moved on to the lighter areas, and finally added in the mid-tones.

A problem I have is that as I paint and attempt to “blend” my brushstrokes into a softer form, my lights and darks all converge with those middle-grays. A good way to resolve this issue would be to allow this first “rough draft” of colors to dry, and then go back to lighten up those highlights. I did make a “second pass” to add in some of the shadows that I’d nearly blended away. That improved the painting somewhat.

But then, I got another “shocker”. Just as I was stunned when my new pad of canvas paper arrived only hours after I’d ordered it, I was more than a little dumb-founded when I put this quick study into GIMP — a graphics manipulation program — to look at the values.

This is an excellent method for value studies, and can be done with any photo program that allows you to desaturate and posterize images. That’s exactly what I did with “Late Summer”. I first removed all color from it so that I was left with a black and white — and gray — image. Then I posterized it to show three values.

Here is the result:

Oops! This was not what I was expecting at all, and it shows me how far off my judgment is when it comes to colors and values.

I thought my sky was a lighter value throughout the painting. I see now that it was actually a middle value with only a couple very light streaks on the right. Definitely I had the right idea, but the wrong execution.

It looks like I did get some of the darker values in the right place, but again, my lighter values aren’t anywhere to be seen. Right idea. Wrong execution.

And my trees! Those leafy boughs should have shown three values — light where the sun is hitting, mid-range values, and dark values for the shadowed areas. All I ended up with was a mish-mash of dark and middle values. Right idea. Sadly, the wrong execution.

While looking at this “GIMP-ed” image is a bit disheartening, I understand now how much more work I have to do in creating strong values in my art. Getting the values right means the painting will be believable. Even when we use colors that are a bit out of the ordinary, a painting will still “work” for the viewer as long as those all-important values are correct.

My values are way off. I know I’ll need to spend a little more time mixing not just “colors”, but creating those colors in the right shade or tint. This is one of the most important aspects of landscape painting, and I can clearly see how much more practice I need.

I do have the right idea now. I’ve read enough and studied enough to understand the principles behind values in painting. That’s a good starting point. Now I need to work on the execution. Once I get that right, I know I’ll see a dramatic improvement in all of my art.



  1. And with the understanding of where you missed the results you were after, you have learned, and know better where to go from here. Thank you for the lessons. You are inspiring me to take up painting once again, if the paints are still of any use, its been a while..

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks! Yes, looking at this lets me really SEE how off I was in my values, especially the sky. I can keep this all in mind with the next painting and the next painting. It’s a learning process, to be sure.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I could swear I see more “values” in the painting than in the posterized image. The sky is definitely separated. I could do this to my photos, posterize, so ascertain the values in it, but what I would not know is how to use this information on my behalf. There’s some light shadow manipulation that can be done on photos too but I guess I lack the theoretical background to go beyond intuition.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Colors can be very misleading, as I’ve learned from this experience. Yes, I really thought my sky was much lighter in value, but while it’s different in hue, it’s not enough different in value to be noticeable. The same thing is happening with the foliage. While I thought I was getting three distinct values there, I was really only getting differences in color. Just being aware is helpful, I think. I know that the next time I grab a brush and begin painting a sky, I will be thinking much more about how light or dark it should be. When I paint bushes or trees, I’ll be thinking again about where the “core color” will be and where the light will fall, and where there will be shadows. I’ll try to be much more careful in mixing both colors and values. I do know that “desaturating” a photo with a photo editing program gives us a chance to get a better look at how we’re using values.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Colors and values are all relative, so we have to keep that in mind, too. I know that getting the values right is an important part of creating art that really “works” and communicates to a viewer. I know, too, that I have a lot to learn!


  3. I’d say the painting looks like it is done at “dusk”! A night picture.
    No, it’s not a bright painting, but you have a very good variety of colors to make the image interesting.
    It is difficult to judge value when color is involved. Color can be distracting.
    Squint up your eyes when painting and trying to judge values – it makes it easier to see lights and darks.
    I quite like your “dusk” painting!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks. I’m going to really look closer now at my values, so I hope to see some improvement. Colors can definitely be distracting! I’m glad you like the “dusk” painting.


  4. From the color of the sky I assumed this was portraying a mostly gray day. In that sense, your values aren’t far off. Bright spots in the trees would have looked a bit artificial if there was no other brightness around to suggest the possibility. However, since you intended a sunny scene you can take a shortcut to values judgement without waiting till the end to do the GIMP thing. Just squinting at your work in progress will give you an idea of where you are and where you need to go. Looking through a piece of red cellophane will accomplish the same thing, probably more starkly. Either way, if you can see significant differences in values you will know you’re heading in the right direction as you go along.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks! I’ve heard of the “red cellophane” trick before, yet I still haven’t tried it. I think that would help me much more than squinting. I just don’t seem to “get” the squinting technique. Yes, in the painting I was going for a much greater range of values. It was very interesting to see how far off my perceptions were. At the same time, seeing this makes me eager to try again. I think — for me — it might come down to exaggeration, making my lights lighter than I think they need to be, and making my darks darker than I believe they are. It will be fun to keep playing with this ideas. And I will check out the red cellophane!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hey, Judith… Nice study and discussion of your values journey… Think your values read ok, though muddled in the interior ground cover, foliage, and tree trunks… Hue (color) is not the problem… It is the tint and shade of your colors… As your reader suggested… Squint… Trust your eyes on a limited value scale, say five or fewer… Painted images are not photo images… Grayscale is flat and lifeless, and can be deceiving… Like much technology, GIMP can be an aid or a curse… All just my opinion… Thank you for your post… Always illuminating…

    Liked by 1 person

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