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Shape and value

To combine shape and value to create a good composition

Most people agree that tonal values are important in a painting yet interestingly many people have a hard time applying this understanding in their own work.


The gap between theory and practice is always a hurdle, especially in watercolour where errors are not so easily corrected; making compromises a part of almost every painting. I thought that I would begin this new chapter by looking into

what tonal values are, why they are so important in a painting and perhaps more importantly how to improve your understanding on how to use values within a painting to create a good composition and a strong impact.


What are tonal values?

Firstly I would like to state that when I speak about tonal values, I am referring to their use within a painting. Tonal values are obviously a part of everyday life and are around us all the time, but there is a big difference between reality and a painting.

A painting is created on a 2-dimensional surface, there is no depth or space, there is no light or shadow, there are no atmospheric influences such as fog, mist, heat… A painting is a series of illusions created through the application and manipulation of paint, and to a large degree the result of a variety of well chosen tonal values. So what exactly are tonal values? Tonal values are graduations in the intensity of a colour from light to dark. The value scale begins with white and ends with the darkest dark value being in theory black. In painting, an 11 scale value range is often used: 0 representing black and 10 representing white, passing through the varying grades between the two.


what are they for?

Tonal values are used in a painting to create an illusion of light, atmosphere, depth and volume. Due to external factors for example changes in lighting or atmospheric conditions, the colour of an object appears to fluctuate and these changes will

determine the atmosphere surrounding the subject. Eg. A very sunny day will create strong tonal value contrasts, strong colour and sharp edges whereas, the exact same subject seen for example early in the morning may be almost unrecognisable due to different climatic conditions, low lighting and perhaps a misty atmosphere which will translate in the painting as a low tonal value range, subdued colour and soft edges. My advice: The key to painting a credible atmosphere is to have a clear image in your mind of what you want to achieve, choose the tonal value range that suits that particular atmosphere and then stick to it right to the end of the painting! In order to create a painting where light, space and atmosphere are convincing and coherent throughout the painting, the artist must take into account the tonal values of each subject within the painting in order to create plausible volume, shape and texture and also respect the logic of the light, space and atmosphere chosen for the painting. Try to imagine a traditional painting without light and shadow, without depth or volume, it doesn’t work. We can imagine an abstract or modern painting without depth or light but in the world of traditional art this spells disaster!


Tonal values in watercolour

Watercolour has a unique quality: graded values of a colour are obtained by using thick opaque pigment to reach the colour’s darkest dark value (masstone) or diluted with water to obtain the lighter values. In oil painting tints (values lighter than the body colour) are obtained by adding white to the body colour and tones (values darker than the body colour) are obtained by adding black to the body colour. This too can be done in watercolour, my white tube is an important part of my palette. Adding white to your colours will give you a whole new range of colours. Each colour has its own maximum dark value, undiluted some colours like Phthalo Green Blue Shade (PG7) or Winsor Violet (Dioxazine) (PV23) appear virtually black, whereas other colours such as the Cadmiums or Cobalts are much lighter in tonal value, even in their most opaque state. Every colour has its own tonal value range. In order to paint the entire spectrum of the tonal value ladder with transparency and fluidity, it is important to understand which colours are best for creating clean dark washes and which are best to avoid. The darker the pigment is when undiluted, the better it will be to create a dark wash. It is interesting to note that aside from the browns and blacks all other colours that are naturally dark in value when undiluted are very transparent in character and so easily create great transparent darks. I suggest you have on hand the colour chart of the watercolour brand you use as each colour should appear on the chart in a graded wash from its darkest dark to a midvalue, making it very easy to see which colours have naturally dark values.


Understanding the colour shift

Every watercolourist knows that the appearance of watercolours freshly laid down changes when they dry. Some colours change slightly and some other colours change in a spectacular way. We’ve all gone through the deception of laying on a beautiful deep dark wash only to find it dry into a dull mid-value. The difference between the wet colour and the dry colour is called the ‘Drying Shift’. The drying shift is something you learn as you go, through trial and error, frustration and excessive hair loss! Or you can read up on this fartoo undocumented subject in a special technical report on the ‘Drying shift’ on page 72 of “The Complete

Book of Watercolour” (available on: – Type 1641 in the search bar).


Tonal values, colour and shape: the relationship

Tonal values cannot exist without shape or colour and conversely colour cannot exist without tonal values and shape and finally shape cannot exist without tonal values and colour. On the other hand, shape and tonal values only require one colour to exist. Just think of a monochrome painting where values and shapes change, yet only one colour is used. The opposite however just does not work in traditional painting: a painting with a variety of colours and shapes yet only one tonal value is very difficult to understand. Although the relationship between tonal values, colour and shape is very close, it is obvious that the relationship between tonal values and shapes must be prioritised over that of colour. Colour is a very powerful tool to add emotion and increase the atmosphere in a painting, but it is not an essential tool in the structure of the painting. Any good monochrome painting is testimony to this. In my mind, it is therefore more important to get the relationship between tonal values and shapes right and work on colour once you feel comfortable enough with the other two. It is extremely difficult to concentrate on colour and values at the same time. Once tonal values become second nature to you, slowly bring in one colour at a time. Once there are two or more colours in a painting, the basic reasoning of the artist needs to adapt. This is the hard part: the question “Is my shape dark or light enough?” is no longer enough. The artist needs to be asking the following questions with every stroke: “Is my shape dark or light enough? Is my colour warm or cool enough? Is my colour bright or dull enough?”. Each shape now requires three different answers in order to know what to apply to get the best results and that takes some getting used to and is best achieved step by step.


Combining shape and value to create a good composition

Be it a dot, dash or line every mark laid onto the paper takes on a shape. Some shapes are figurative and others are abstract. Some shapes represent the objects in the painting, some shapes represent the spaces between them. The word ‘shape”’ includes all masses within the painting; small or large, simple or complex and this is just the beginning! Shapes are wonderful tools, one of my favourites, as they are not only individual entities but they are also a major player when it comes to creating a painting’s design and therefore its overall impact. Artists that are able to use tonal values and shapes to their advantage are a clear head above the rest.


First plane: the design, the big picture

This is where only the large masses come into play and where you should try and make a powerful impact. A painting should be able to be divided into approximately 2 or 3 large shapes, which should be linked together in an aesthetic manner by a dominant value (either light, mid or dark value depending on your initial idea). The design of the painting will be best seen from a distance of approximately 3 or 5 metres, depending on the paintings size. This distance will ensure that only the large masses are seen as anything else is just too small to see. A strong contrast in the tonal values between these two or three shapes will increase the impact of the painting.


Second plane: getting to know the subject

From a distance of around 2 or 3 meters, we should be able to start seeing the intermediate masses in the composition and begin to get an idea of the painting’s content. To ensure a strong impact, the tonal contrasts found in these shapes should be weaker than those found in the first plane of the painting, otherwise whilst looking at the painting from a distance the stronger contrasts will dominate and the shape of the larger masses will be lost along with its impact. Here tonal values play an important role in guiding the viewer’s eye around the painting, from area to area as the artist chooses. Subtlety is the key as the subject should now appear to be taking on a more important role than the masses. As there are more intermediate-sized shapes within this part of the composition, using a common tonal value to link shapes or at least balance shapes is very important.


Third plane: getting lost in the details

Up close and personal, this is where you want to be to see the finer detail of a painting. There’s nothing worse than strong overwhelming detail that drowns out any lighter valued shapes (and therefore the composition too!). They just end up floating around on the paper and distract the eye. Detail should the cherry, not the cake. Be careful that your shapes and values are treated in a similar manner: lower the tonal value contrast and weaken the edges of the shapes and in other areas, strengthen the tonal value contrasts and sharpen the edges. Think of tonal values and shapes as the Laurel and Hardy of your painting and you’ll have a great time working with them !

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