When I teach my Introduction to Oil Painting classes, I always begin by having my students paint a grayscale.
If you haven’t been using a gray scale to check your values when painting, I strongly suggest painting your own. Pre-made ones are fine too, but painting your own is better, simply because it will help you see more closely the subtle transitions from white to black—and shades of gray in between. It’s trickier than it looks!
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Painting a value scale
To construct your own grayscale, cut a vertical strip of white cardboard and divide into ten equal squares. (Using fewer squares works, too, but it will just compress your value range.) Begin by painting the first square pure black, straight from the tube. Now paint the opposite end pure white.
To paint the remaining gray shades, I had my students premix several shades of gray on a separate sheet of paper to help them determine how much to modify the lights or darks going in either direction. Be sure to keep your brush wiped and clean between swipes or you will end up with too many gray piles. We also learned that it works best to start with a pile of white and add black, rather than the other way around.
As we worked our way up and down the scale, we found that the middle values were the most difficult to paint. There wasn’t enough “value” range left to paint the middle. My first value scale (below) is suffering from mid-value crisis! You can see there is too much middle value.
One approach I tried on my second attempt was to paint the white square, then the black one, then IMMEDIATELY paint the middle value. This approach allowed me to more accurately gauge my values working in both directions.
Seeing the range of value in your paintings
I decided to use my new value scale to test the values on one of my older still lifes, so I converted the image to black and white. Initially I thought the values were pretty decent in the original, seen below. . .
However, when I removed the color, I saw that I could have “pushed” my value ranges had I first used a value scale to determine my darkest darks and lightest lights.
If I were to go back into this painting today, I might create a more dramatic image by darkening some of the shadow areas, especially directly underneath the pear shadows, and adding one or two highlights in the upper ranges.
NOTE: This is just one reason why it’s a good idea to hang on to your earlier work – you’ll always have it as a reference point later on so you can see how far you’ve progressed. In this case, it can show you how you’ve improved in the use of value when working with color.
Taking your value scales to the next level
And as you might have guessed, a black and white grayscale just the beginning. By using any two light and dark colors—for example, burnt umber and white, or ultramarine blue and white—you can give yourself “warm” and “cool” value scales to check your work against.
Here’s one more tip, as well: if you’d like to make your value scales more functional, try punching holes down the right side near each value change. You can hold it up in front of you and use it as a value checker when you’re out painting
Does this all sound like a lot of work? Because it really isn’t, and it’s definitely worth it.
Just by making and using value scales, you’ll come away with a heightened sense of the real “value of value” you paint. And best of all, it won’t cost you much!