Rocky Falls: Value Study

When I began my current project — Rocky Falls — I first made several small “value sketches” designed to help me create a strong composition. I explored several different possibilities. Through photographs I shared three different choices in an earlier post. It was interesting to read the comments. It should come as no surprise, I suppose, that there was not unanimous agreement on which of the three scenes made the best composition. This is art, after all. It’s subjective, and different viewers respond to images in different ways.

Looking at colorful reference photos is helpful, but it’s even more helpful to reduce a scene — or in this case, a series of scenes — to black-and-white, to see in terms of basic values. I did this by making three little “thumbnail sketches” very quickly. My intent was to lay out the large shapes, to reduce the scene to light and dark in order to determine which might be most pleasing to the eye.

My first little sketches were very small — truly “thumbnail” size — and were done in my sketchbook very, very quickly. In the image below, I’ve darkened the scan to make it easier to see what I was doing.

Even here, it’s difficult to see, I know, but these three small value sketches represent the three different views I was considering. After looking at the photos and my quick sketches, I choose the second view. I felt that this had a lot of interest with the dark values at the right and the strong diagonal lines formed by the waterfall.

Here is another look at the cropped reference photo.

And here is the same reference converted to black and white:

In looking at the scene in terms of composition, one of my first considerations is focal point. In the photo below, I’ve used my “Paint” program to indicate what I see as the focal point for the painting:

Here I have a strong contrast between light and dark. From this point, I hope a viewer’s eye will travel across the rocky point in the waterfall, moving upward and downward through the painting. That’s how I’m seeing it — which may not be the right way. It could be that when your attention is directed to this area, your eyes simply follow the water down — and out of the painting. I still have a lot to learn about using strong focal points. For me, the important thing is that — right or wrong — I’m thinking about what I’m doing.

I will say that as of now, my Rocky Falls painting project is going well. You’ll be seeing more of it in upcoming posts. It has attracted my husband’s attention, for sure. Yes, of course, he’s my biggest fan, so I should expect a favorable response from him, but he’s deemed my work on Rocky Falls to this point as “very impressive.”

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Even though I was eager to get to my canvas and see what I could do, I knew it would be helpful to do another value study — this one a bit larger and a bit more detailed. If you look very closely, you’ll see that I’ve indicated “10 minutes” — that’s how long I spent making this little sketch.

The purpose was not to show every detail, but to provide myself with a “roadmap” of values. I looked at the shapes I saw, and did my best to indicate where the darkest areas were, where the lightest values were, and to note places of medium value.

Then, using information from both my value sketches and my reference photographs, I was ready to begin. I’m pleased with the project so far, and I think one reason why it’s going so well is because I took the time to ask questions about the right composition and to do several value studies.

Maybe I’ve made a few wrong choices — and I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on the composition and the focal point — but the important thing is that I’m stepping up, figuring out how to approach the painting, and making the choices on my own. That’s a huge part — for me — of what it means to say that I’m an artist.




  1. If I had $5 for every book on Composition I have struggled to understand, I could buy a lot more books on composition! You’re absolutely right that the point of greatest value contrast is usually the point our eye selects first, but the zigzag shape of the cropped waterfall is so dynamic that I didn’t even notice that strong black/white rock/water spot you circled! Which just shows why the competing rules of composition are so frustrating! I’m glad to see you playing with the trees in the top portion of the scene, because, for me, the lighter green tree continues the zigzag or S shape of the waterfall and leads my eye out of the painting at the top instead of coaxing it back into the interesting contrasts in the waterfall and rocks. This Composition stuff is soooo hard for me! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I agree that composition is tricky, and no one ever seems to agree LOL. When it works, it works, and sometimes it works even when it doesn’t follow the rules, so who knows!


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