Monday, January 30, 2012

Painting White Part One - Value

A lot has been written on this subject before... many paintings ask the question, "what is white?"  Viewers are often amazed at how many colors are visible in something that's purportedly "white"

All objects reflect back whatever light is thrown on them (including light bouncing off of adjacent colored objects). The more strongly colored the object in question, the more it filters this light. Neutral objects (black, gray, white) provide almost no color filtering, that is to say, they absorb or reflect the entire spectrum equally. That means that with a pure white object, what you are seeing is really just the sum of all the light striking it. As a result, the one color that white almost never really appears as is pure white.

But I'm not here to talk about color just yet - as usual, I'm here to talk about VALUE. First and foremost, the reason an element in a painting appears white is because it's the whitest thing in the painting - or the whitest (lightest) thing in a particular part of the painting, where a particular lighting condition has been set up. (This is in fact true of all colors - what appears as blue is simply the bluest thing in the painting, what appears as yellow is simply the yellowest thing, etc., but again, we're not here to talk about color).

Take a look at this painting, The White Bear (featured in Spectrum 18, a full page no less, thank you very much):

There are several "white" elements in it - the woman's head scarf, her apron strings, the bear, the girl's head scarf. Here are those colors sampled, shown on a pure white background:

And here's where those samples are located in the painting:

Apart from the intense orange edge light, most of the painting appears somewhat uniformly lit. At least, all the figures look like they exist in the same space.

But check out how dark the mom and dad figures appear in isolation. The value range for elements from the white apron strings to dad's dark trousers has been extraordinarily compressed - but the apron strings still read as white because they are the whitest thing in that area.

Now with the girl overlaid - it seems like she comes from a different painting:

She'd fit better if mom and dad were painted like this:

Something like the figures in this painting:

Or if the girl were like this, then she'd fit with the darker mom and dad:

So when you're setting up a painting, or struggling to fix one... or struggling with color, or struggling in general, take a breath and first identify the white in each area of your painting. Everything else in that area must fit between it and that areas's black - even if this means you have to deal with incredibly subtle shifts of value.  I've said it before and I'll say it again - the illusion of light is about relationships and primarily value relationships, not contrast or saturation.

Be sure to check out Part Two of this series.


  1. Awesome article Chris, thanks for writing it. It's always very useful to read about the matter and see how one has handles it, even if I understand the principle.

    I am dealing with an illustration these days, in my attempt to begin painting more with traditional media rather than digital (damn digital). The scene is set up with a right to left intense light, the left side of the image being in dark halftones. My question here (or rather my problem) is how to sort out the difference of tone between two different overlapping forms, of slightly different hues, around the focal point, but with the same intense light shining on them?

    To be more descriptive, the character's face, half in light and half in shadow, is in front of a large tooth of a slain monster (only teeth and the tough of the monster are seen). The brightest light hits both, and they are also both in shadow. The only differences are 1)their hue, an orange-yellow for the character (an insect thing) and a subdued light ochre I suppose for the tooth and 2)the tooth is a smooth form while the face is squarish and shifts to the dark side abruptly.

    I am at the stage where I have laid down base colors, and have a separation of light and shade. My dilemma is how to proceed. In my tone study, it was easy to separate the two and focus on the face, it was slightly outlined and sharper. Now, with paint, I don't want the outline of course, but I don't know if I will be able to produce the sharpness, also, at this stage where both face and tooth are about the same 'grey' tone, focus goes to both (my primary intent) but I am worried that they will keep blending together unless I keep the tooth at least a tone down from the face, something that might kill the supposed intensity of the light. I don't want to flag the head with a 'white' tooth (that could work) and I want to see how well I can achieve the illusion of space.

    I am setting many problems with this one, I don't mind, I can tackle many at once and take lessons from ll at once. It's just that here, a difference in skill from one medium to the next, presents problem with the same property, tone. Ability to produce a solution with one may be hindered by the other.

    Any propositions? Or at least art examples you can think of I can look at for study.

    1. Michael,
      Thank you so much for your question, and detailed information. Why not email me a photo of the wip and I'll take a look? It's hard to analyze like this without seeing (it's hard enough WITH seeing). In any event, I can offer you some thoughts. First, you may be over-worrying about distinguishing the two forms (the head and the tooth). Often artists get hung up on clearly indicating edges, when very often things work a lot better when objects melt together in certain areas. Second, if you do want to differentiate the elements somewhat, as I think you know, you probably want to do this with value, not color (they both work, just in different ways). Lastly, you alluded to the "sharpness" - another way to create (or reduce) focus, as you know, is with, well, focus, that is, blurriness vs. sharpness. Blurriness is most obvious with respect to edges, but also matters within forms as well.

      As I said, feel free to email your image to me at, or point me to some online location for it and I'll take a look!