Value Ranges – High Key Quick Study

I’ll start right off by saying that I’m not sure I really understand what I’m doing here. Of course, there are a lot of times in art when I don’t fully grasp a principle. Even more, there are times when although I might understand a concept, I lack the skill to apply it correctly. So, feeling a bit confused is nothing new for me when it comes to painting.

With that said, let me jump right ahead and show you today’s “quick study”. I’ve titled it “High Key Lake” because that’s what this study was all about. High key painting.

When it comes to grading my performance, I give this one a “Well, I tried” score. Although not an abject failure in light of my intention, it’s not exactly a great success, either.

This painting was intended to be a quick-study illustration of what “high key” painting means. To explain that, let me go back to the principles of value in art — the relative lightness or darkness of various hues in our painting.

We hear so often about the importance of getting “a full range of values” in a drawing or painting, but now that I’ve memorized that idea, I’m hearing advice that’s much different. A full range of value — from the purest white to the darkest black with everything in between — is difficult to manage in a painting. Maybe somebody should tell that to Tony Curanaj as he patiently mixes nine different values for his palette (and then splits them in 18 values as often as not, it seems.)

What I’m learning now is that it’s better — meaning wiser, easier, and more aesthetically pleasing — to select a range of values.  This diagram shows the full range, then breaks it down into low-key, high-key, and a mid-value range.

For my quick study today, my challenge was to work with the “high-key” values. These were the values numbered from 6 to 10 (the lightest values) on my value scale.

I chose a fairly simple reference photo and began by drawing out the basic shapes in the scene. For reference, I then numbered the different areas. I intended for the sky to be a “Value 9” with a few brighter, white clouds using “Value 10”. The lake area was mostly Values 7 and 8, with a highlighted area of Value 10. The trees with reflections were Values 8 and 9. The trees in the foreground — clearly the darkest area in the painting — would be Value 6. Those distant mountins? Values 8 and 9.

It was a challenge to mix these light values. As I started mixing and painting, I saw very little difference between pure white and Value 9 — a very light gray. As I was mixing, I was comparing the value to my standard value scale. My values were all too dark.

Of course, adding hue to these values was another challenge. For the sky, I needed a very “high” key — Value 9 — with just the slightest touch of blue. The darker colors — though still supposedly on the “high” side of the scale — were a little easier for me, but again, I know my mixes were darker than they should have been.

After I blocked in the basic colors in their basic areas, I did go back to do a little “light and shadow” tweaking. You can see it best, I think, in the chalky-yellow colored cliffs. I added a touch of gray or a touch of white, depending on where the lights and shadows would be.

I think one difficulty for me is that I don’t really care for “high-key” paintings. Even “high-key” paintings from famous artists don’t draw my attention as well as their other works. Here, as examples, are two well-known paintings using a limited range of values — on the light side.

First, Camille Pissarro’s “Valhermeil Near Oise, Rain Effect”

Next, Monet’s lovely “Entrance to Giverny Under the Snow”

What’s notable about these two paintings is that they rely on color harmony more than value. This is a bit of a contradiction to the adage we hear so often in art about values doing the work and colors getting all the credit. We do see some value differences in these scenes, but no deep shadows or strong areas of contrast.

I find it note-worthy, too, that both of these “high-key” paintings show highly visible brushstrokes to create textural effects. What this means to me is that despite all the emphasis art teachers place on values, there are other factors we must consider when painting. I think the importance of “a full range of values” comes into play with graphite or charcoal drawings, but maybe not so much with media such as oils or pastels.

Doing this quick study has been valuable. Not only did I gain more experience in mixing colors and attempting to match them to a value scale, seeing and blocking in different masses and shapes in a painting, and putting paint to canvas — canvas paper in this instance — but I was forced to think about values, to broaden my knowledge, and to understand the principles better than before.

We speak a lot of “relative values”, and working with a limited range — such as a high key — has really shown me what “relative values” mean.  Whether we’re working with “lighter values” or “darker values” we still have light. medium, and dark. I know I’ll continue questioning — and struggling with — the ideas of using a limited range of values, but that’s how we learn.

Maybe today’s quick study “missed the mark” a bit and isn’t entirely “high key”.  But it’s been right “on the mark” for me as a useful painting exercise.




  1. Very nice. I think you’re doing the right thing. Painting is not really an intuitive endeavour and it should always be a well planned, researched and developed process. Great work and hard work develops talent, something many people don’t think about when they strive to become or to be a painter or an artist. You’ve most certainly the right approach.
    All the best and my greetings from Spain,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for all the good wishes. I am learning more about light and shadow — and many other things — and I am starting to plan out my paintings more. For me, it is a helpful approach.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely Judith, helpful and correct. I am sure you will see the results, for sure. Greetings from Spain,

        Liked by 1 person

  2. what you tried to do is interesting from the perspective of a photographer. The scene you painted has a great dynamic range and it would be difficult to reproduce in high key in a picture without blowing out the sky and perhaps the lake into pure white, losing a lot of detail and definition in the mountains, branches of trees etc. I think for this reason high key photographs tend to be also minimal with low dynamic range and few elements. I love working in low key and high key but a good photograph in high key is extremely difficult to achieve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comments. This was the first time I’ve ever tried to stay “high-key” in an oil painting. Truly, until recently, I never really knew about these “high-key” and “low-key” value ranges. You’ll be seeing my “low-key” copy of the scene tomorrow. It is very challenging. I think eventually I’m going to find myself mostly in the middle of the values road! I always get my lights too dark, and my darks end up too light. I have to keep the idea of “relative” values in mind. It’s quite a learning experience for sure!

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