JOHN POTOTSCHNIK FINE ART

The value of black and white

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I do like the clever title for this blog post because it expresses a duel truth for artists working with paint and other drawing media. Painting in black and white is of great value, but black and white are also values. The practice of black and white painting, and an understanding and effective use of values are critical to the success of our creations.

When speaking of value however, we’re not considering just black and white but every possible variation in between…and that number is huge. Most of us are very familiar with the 9-step gray scale, and that is helpful, but many artists today like to limit their value range to just three to five distinct values. These highly controlled and disproportionate value shapes make for bold, powerful statements.

Click images to enlarge.

Here's a nine-step grey scale. Just creating one of these will help you discern subtle value shifts. Start with ivory black on one end and white on the other. Mix first to the middle, number five. Next mix five with white and come up with number three; then mix five with black and create number eight. Finally, fill in the remainder.

Here’s a nine-step grey scale. Just creating one of these will help you discern subtle value shifts. Start with ivory black on one end and white on the other. Mix first to the middle, number five. Next mix five with white and come up with number three; then mix five with black and create number eight. Finally, fill in the remainder.

 

If you’ve been following this blog over the last month, you’ve learned that I’m in sort of a funk concerning my work…pretty much unsatisfied with most of what I’m doing. I’m trying to discover how to take my work to the next level…in other words…what can be improved.

As stated in those earlier blogs, I know enough to know that the answer to this dilemma will be found in one or all of the following: concept, composition, drawing, values, color, and technique. In that search, I’ve been doing many paintings using ivory black and titanium white. Many valuable lessons can be gleaned from such an exercise because any consideration of color is completely eliminated from the process.

4.5" x 4.5" - Oil on gessoed paper.

4.5″ x 4.5″ – Oil on gessoed paper.

4.5" x 4.5" - Oil on gessoed paper

4.5″ x 4.5″ – Gouache on paper

Painted en plein air. 4.5" x 4.5" - Oil on gessoed paper

Painted en plein air. 4.5″ x 4.5″ – Oil on gessoed paper

"Grindelwald, Switzerland" - 4.5" x 4.5" - Oil on gessoed paper

“Grindelwald, Switzerland” – 4.5″ x 4.5″ – Oil on gessoed paper

 

I have created many black and white paintings over the years but they are now approached with renewed vigor and enthusiasm because I’m seeing more clearly their worth, not only in clarifying value distribution, but also in helping nail down the concept and composition.

"Deserted Wylie, Texas House" - 4.5" x 4.5" - Gouache on paper

“Deserted Wylie, Texas House” – 4.5″ x 4.5″ – Gouache on paper

 

Oil Painters of America Master Signature artist, Marc Hanson takes it a step farther; he believes that becoming a better colorist requires a deeper understanding of value relationships and how they relate to color found in the subjects we choose to paint. In a 2013 issue of PleinAir magazine, Hanson also recommends that, if you’re a painter, use the same medium you normally use. That practice will not only develop your sensitivity to value changes but will also help in learning the mechanics of painting. Because color is not involved, mixing dirty color will be of no concern.

These small studies illustrate Hanson's comment

These small studies illustrate how color relates to value. Each study is 2.62″ x 3.38″ – Gouache on paper

Painted en plein air, 3.75" x 7.5" - Oil on gessoed paper

Painted en plein air, 3.75″ x 7.5″ – Oil on gessoed paper

"Vermont Barn" - 3.75" x 7.5" - Oil on gessoed paper.

“Vermont Barn” – 3.75″ x 7.5″ – Oil on gessoed paper.

 

So, to summarize the value of black and white painting, following are some thoughts:

1 – Since no color is involved, it is much easier to see and develop very distinctive value patterns.

2 – Helps to clarify and distinguish more easily the differences between value shapes and their relative size.

3 – Easier to establish a clear focal point and hierarchy of value shapes.

4 – Can more easily establish the dominate, unifying value of the painting.

5 – Can easily manipulate the composition by simply adjusting value shapes relative to one another.

6 – They become a very helpful value guide when moving into color application.

7 – Gives a clear indication if desired mood of the painting has been achieved.

8 – Helps overcome mid-range gray paintings. Encourages the use of pure black and pure white.

9 – Only two tubes of paint to lay out; little mess, easy cleanup.

Eliminating color allows us to concentrate on value and composition, making it much easier to try different concepts. Each study is 2.62" x 3.5" - Gouache on paper.

Eliminating color allows us to concentrate on value and composition, making it much easier to try different concepts. Each study is 2.62″ x 3.5″ – Gouache on paper.

 

I hope this helps. I encourage you to give it a try; any subject will provide a worthwhile benefit and challenge, whether painted in plein air or in the studio. You may want to check out these two recent blog posts.

 

Challenge free painting?

Give up or keep working…your choice.

 

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