Value Design and Compression

The term ‘value’ refers to how light or dark a particular colour is. Good value design underpins all great paintings. It is the most important element in conveying solidity and atmosphere in a painting.

Naturally, therefore, value design should be the first port of call when learning about the complexities of colour. Students at LARA spend a considerable amount of their time working to gain this critical understanding.

In order to break down its own complexities, value can be thought of as having 11 equally spaced ‘steps’, from 1 – absolute black – to 11 – absolute white. The number of steps chosen is essentially arbitrary as there are infinite tiny variations of value possible. When we designate steps and assign them numbers it helps us to organise our minds as we work. 11 steps are enough to represent any image properly.

Everything we see in nature we see because of light. The highest value available to us is the sun. The lowest value available to us is the dark vacuum of space. The value range of any materials we use to draw or paint is minuscule in relation to this vast natural range. In fact, nature’s range is so huge that our eyes cannot process it all at the same time; our eyes constantly adjust to compensate for all the differing tones found in nature.
How then to fully express the effects of nature? We must compress our values to replicate the value hierarchies and relationships we see in nature within our chosen medium.

The image above is a wonderful example of tonal design, typical of the academic art of the nineteenth century. The main aesthetic motive behind the value design is to separate the lights from the darks. In order to achieve this the artist has compressed both the lights (going from a values 10 to 8) and the shadows (going from a values 2 to 3) and allowed for the most expression to be placed in the connecting halftones of the figure (values 4 to 7). This design allows for maximum form to be expressed and lends a shimmering glow to all the lights.

Remember, value design and how we compress our values are choices. These choices should be made to reinforce the aesthetic idea of the image. Let’s take a look at an image compressed in a very different way. In the above image, the artist has decided that the main interest lies in the shadows. To support this, he has allowed for a large portion of his value range to express the shadows (values 1 to 6). The main compression occurs in the halftone (this time only values 7 and 8). Note that even though these images have a very different aesthetic motivation, both artists have maintained the separation of their lights and their darks. No value from the  lights enters into the value range of the darks and vice versa. This separation is of utmost importance to create a clear and successful image.

by Charlie Pickard


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