Art Fundamentals no 2: Values vs Color

This post is much more one of a pragmatic conversation on whether to “glaze colors over values” or “directly paint with colors”. Before I get further, let it be known that I don’t think you can take the strong form of this argument, in that it is perfectly fine to side on either side of the debate and be right — for yourself. That all said, it is nonetheless a perennial debate found online at various sites and critique circles, and upon reflection I found the underlying arguments worth investigating in so much as they elucidate the nature of light and color, and inform the artist of various dimensions that must be solved to successfully create realistic renders.

The two camps generally follow along lines of painting directly with colors, or building up values first and then glazing colors overtop. These two approaches are succinctly illustrated in the two videos below which I recommend you watch first before proceeding further.

Marco Bucci articulates why he prefers painting directly in color, even as he demonstrates creating an picture through the application of “glazes.”
Dominick Saponaro demonstrates his process of adding color on top of a greyscale image.

My intent is to not critique or comment on either of the above videos. But that said, let us start with Dominick Saponaro’s approach, which is incidentally in the same camp as my own. The below collage of images is meant to demonstrate a point: values define shape and form, whereas color (hue and saturation) do not. In this, we can see even when we take the original image and reduce it to pure values of a single hue whether that is greys, reds, greens, or blues the image reads the same. This is because values are carrying the heavy work of allowing you to see form. Change the colors, as long as you do not change the values, and the image is effectively the same.

Example of the power of values. The original is in the upper-left with a desaturated (greyscale) image in the center. A simple application of red, green and blue are applied on the bottom. Note how each image is recognizable to the original; due to the fact that values is what defines shape and form, color does not.

As noted above, I tend to approach paintings starting with values. I suspect this is largely historical as I started drawing as a kid with pencils, and rarely did I explore the application of color unless I was forced to. As such, it seems natural, and to be quite honest, comfortable to start with values. I understand values, or at least I understand values better than I understand colors, and as such it takes a great amount of courage for me to just start with colors.

There are those people that feel they need to justify their choices in art process – something I find sorta silly to be honest – but let us address one argument for the use of values with glazes: the masters of yore themselves started with values. While some of these artists may have elected this even given a chance to start with colors, you must appreciate the times in which these Renaissance artists lived. To wit, it was not choice but economics that drove this selection of this approach. More to point, the application of glazes was an economic choice, and neither a personal or philosophical one. Remember the times: you could not drive down to your local art supply store to pick up a few brushes, stretched canvas, and paints. Instead, all of this generally had to be prepared by the artist themself. The paints they used were created by their own hand, and were deeply guarded secrets that were not shared lightly with competing schools. Not only was it labor intensive to create paints, the ingredients to create pigment colors was not cheap. So the economical solution was to increase the mileage of paint; glazes allowed this rare and expensive item to be applied ever so judiciously over an underpainting typically down in values of umber.

While glazes may have been largely driven by economics, the use of umber was not. As we discuss next, a challenge with this approach is the “muted colors” that can result. The choice of value color is equally important as it will push the glaze colors toward your underpaintings color. Umber, not grey, is a better choice especially for human subjects. This will help reduce the washed out or muddy colors that can result when you use greys only. And this hints to something more about this approach – you cannot just use a glazing (or color) layer on top of your values. The why of this lies in the understanding of light and color, and in particular the differences between 1) hue (color), 2) saturation (aka chroma), and 3) brightness (aka value). Recall that value is defined as the relative brightness of color, typically expressed as a value of grey between white and black. When you glaze over grays, you are effectively combining two dimensions (hue and value) with saturation set to some preset value. And this is where this process can create muddy or washed out images since this is not how the real world operates. Things that brighter tend to be more saturated, and things that are in shadow are less saturated. If you just apply a glaze then you are missing this key piece in your rendering, resulted in the aforementioned washed out look. So just applying color will not work; you must add an overpaint, as it were, where you boost highlights ( increase saturation) and drop shadows (decrease saturation).

Googling “colors of the face” will yield a slew of images that help you better understand the movement of hue when rendering faces. While a face may have a dominant color such as say “pink”, you look more closely you will notice that our faces are a patchwork of yellows, blues, and reds.

On top of this, especially with portraits people forget that our faces are not made of a single color no matter how much some people might argue otherwise. This is particular important when creating portraits, something can be overlooked if you just add a whole bunch of pink to a face and call it down.

Other challenges with starting with values, then adding color, is that highlights will generally be more saturated in color. While you do not over do it, it’s important you consider this in areas of highlight on your image.

VOX has created a create video that showcases the work involved in colorizing old photos. While they do not go deeply into step by store process, even if you ignore the research into historical reproduction of that colors existed at the time for say a logo of Coke Cola, there is more than enough insights to glean from the interviews to appreciate that there is much, much more than than just adding a color layer and calling it down.

So how might one solve all these issues of starting with values and moving to color? If you are Marco Bucci the answer is to just start with colors. And youou can see all of this play out with his video above, and he does have a point. There is a lot of wrestling with the image as you take the original values and apply color (and saturation) serially. And while not immediately evident, these later stages, especially due to adding highlights and shadows with additional layers you will naturally tweak the original values. While this is not a huge problem, it is nonetheless something you want to be aware of since maintaining you values is what defines shape and form. Mess with values and you are messing with your shapes.

My only counter argument to Marco is that using colors directly requires you to solve multiple problems simultaneously. And I think for some people – such as myself – we find starting values just more natural and easy. I take the weak form of this argument since this comfort may be nothing more than a reflection of how I started to create art as a child. Had I been trained from the start to work with colors I doubt I’d have moved to values first. Nevertheless, my intuition tells me that overtime I may graduate, as it were, from starting with values to starting with colors as my comfort and understanding of color theory improves.

To date, 95% of my work is done in this serial way of starting with values and then adding color and saturation. Of the 5% of pieces not done this way, I will admit that I enjoyed the more freewheeling process of just painting in colors as shown in Arrested!

“Dragon Doula” was entirely down starting with values, and then working with a number of layers to colorize and then additionally overpaint on top of that to get the finally rendering, in a process that is similar to the process that Dominick Saponaro demonstrates in the above video.
“Arrested!” was painted using direct application of colors in a process much in line with what Marco Bucci advocates.

In the end, I cannot strongly advocate one approach over another, especially since the preponderance of my work prefers one approach without being accused of bias confirmation. And while I’ve tried a more “painterly” approach similar to Marco’s, I’m not sufficiently versed in it to have strong convictions about it is superiority, either. That all said, I do agree with Marco’s critiques that starting with values and then moving onto colors and saturation introduces its own obstacles to harmonize these three dimensions, something that does not happen when you just apply color directly to canvas. That all said, I do prefer to nail my values first since that seems to be how my brain works, or just how my brain has been acclimated to work over the years. Nevertheless, I still want to continue to push myself to be comfortable with both approaches, since I think being able to more succinctly problem solve the application of color is something critical to improving my craft. In particular, understanding how color works both physically and perceptually is critical to making pieces that read well, especially if one aspires to create realistic rendering.

Author: Ward

I’m the creator and operator of this little corner of the internets, writing on all things related to art and more specifically my experiences trying to figure this whole thing out. I guess I’m trying to figure out life, too, but mostly I just post about art here.

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