Do You See Any Difference?

Yesterday, I presented a “High-Key” study — a lake scene done using the lightest values from our traditional value scale. Today, for comparison, I repeated the study using the lowest values. Here is the result:


Low Key Lake — Quick Study on Canvas Paper

Repeating this study using different values was a bit of challenge in itself. At the time, I was tired, having just spent nearly an hour cleaning my palette and brushes. I’ve never cared much for painting the same scene over a second time, and as you can tell, I didn’t put a lot of effort into this.

My biggest accomplishment for the day — other than all the cleaning — was mixing grays on my palette and trying to match them to my value card as closely as possible. For each value gray I created, I used a careful mix of raw umber, Payne’s gray, and white. The umber warmed up the coolness of the Payne’s gray, and the white allowed me to create shades ranging from a dark gray to a mid-tone. I then used those grays as guides for my color mixing.

Low key paintings are often associated with dark, stormy, and gloomy scenes. Where “high-key” paintings might be compared to bright, happy major keys in music, the low-key value range is definitely a minor key. And just as I love music written in minor keys, I’m naturally more drawn to low-key art.

Two of the best known “low-key” paintings are these works.

First, by Claude Monet, there’s “Seascape”.

And J. M. W. Turner’s “Moonlight – A Study at Millbank” is a beautiful example of low-key painting. Here, Turner has used a trick many artists have since borrowed: adding small bright bursts of light for contrast.

These two studies have been interesting to do, and I’ve definitely learned a lot about the “relative values” in painting. I’ve discovered for myself that it doesn’t matter which end of the value scale predominates. We can stay within a limited range and create interesting art.

Overall, I know that my “light” values in the high-key study were a bit too dark; in a similar way, I see my “dark” values in today’s low-key study as a bit too light. As I’m learning, it seems I tend to move toward the middle in my values. Now, I have a better understanding of what I need to work on and why.

All of this information is very helpful for me as I move toward creating a greater sense of mood and atmosphere in my landscape paintings.


  1. I see a strong correlation between your studies and my explorations. With fabric, we often get so distracted by color that we forget about value. We need a full range and contrast or we end up with mush, even if it’s bright and colorful mush!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Interesting comparison! I don’t work much with fabric — and when I do it’s only very simple things — but you have a point. Color is only one of many design elements we need to consider in any form of “visual” art — which definitely includes fabric art.


    1. Yep, that’s part of what I’m learning. I just wish I’d been able to make my quick little studies more different. My high-key wasn’t high-key enough, my low-key wasn’t low-key enough. But, I’m learning, and that’s what really matters.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Right at the start of your article I was confused about the difference between ‘lightest values’ and ‘lowest values’. I guess you are not equating high value with high key? Or low with light? I think I’ve probably missed the point. and need to read your previous article

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for any confusion. My paintings don’t really show High-Key and Low-Key as well as they should. Most value scales range from 1 (Black) to 10 (White). If you use only values 6-10 (the lightest grades) you’re working in “high key”. The lower range (1 through 5) are the “lower key” of the scale. I think I’ll probably find myself painting mostly in the mid-range, using values that fall in the center of the value scale. I hope that info helps!


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