Cherry blossoms–what artist can resist the burst of color they offer each spring? But why would I choose to paint them in Payne’s grey? The answer is simple: a painting must have more than beautiful color to be successful, and to understand color, we must first understand values.
I often find that students can’t wait to break out the color, foregoing the important step of first understanding values. Frequently, it is a lack of confidence or fear of drawing that brings this on. The best way to overcome this is to just do it–draw from life whenever you have the chance. And, when you have a subject that you wish to paint in color, paint it first (or sketch it in charcoal) using one color. It can be ANY color that is dark enough to provide a range of tonal values–Payne’s grey, ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, burnt umber, black, Prussian blue, violet–any of these are good choices as are many other dark colors.
Artists who cannot draw often use color as a distraction to draw the eye away from inaccurate proportions, perspective and forms. It is rarely successful when used in this manner. Color should support a good drawing (even one that is highly abstract) by reinforcing the sense of form, value, depth and space. Only when an artist truly understands tonal values and how to interpret them in color can the painting be successful.
A painting that lacks understanding of tonal values often appears flat. This is usually because there is a concentration of middle values. While there may be some highlights, the dark values are often absent, making the piece lack depth and dimension. When you are forced to create a range of values with just one color, you cannot rely on color changes to distinguish one area of the painting from another, you MUST rely on values to create that sense of depth and space. This trains your eye to observe these changes and apply them with your medium of choice. Once you have worked out a value study, it can be used as your map when you go to work in color.
For artists that choose to work in watercolor, a separate value study is needed. For those working in other mediums that are opaque, you can use your value study as your under painting, making it the structure of the painting.
If you are having difficulty making your paintings look dimensional, try working monochromatically with your subject before painting it in color. This extra step may take a bit more time, but the end result is worth the extra effort.