Tonal values in paintings

The French Alps, 2010 by frankeberIt cannot be overstressed how important values are in order to accomplish a successful painting! I dare say it is *the* most important thing, more so than color and the actual subject matter. Think about it: if a painting “works” it is most likely well composed and well balanced and the tonal values are right. It rarely is the actual colors that were used. For instance, when painting a sunset the sky could be yellowish-orange, but it might as well be purplish-blue. It doesn’t matter! What does matter is how light or dark the clouds look compared to the water and how light or dark the water looks compared to the boats in the foreground. Or in this particular painting: the tonal relationship between the clouds, the mountains and the town in front of the mountains.Tonal value is easier understood if we think of it in black and white, as a greyscale from light to dark. It just needs to be applied to color as well.

Watercolor is the most difficult medium in this regard because we only have one shot! It is much easier accomplished with oils or acrylics because you can endlessly layer your paint. Eventually it’ll look right! You do this in watercolor, we all know what we get: the dreaded mud!

value sketchThe painting Crossing the French Alps (15″x 20″) is done in the studio. I was only able to do this value sketch and snap some pictures on location when driving through the Alps on our way to Germany. But that’s all I really needed. The pictures help to remember the scene, but they do nothing when it comes to tone. The darks are always too dark and the lights are always too light in photographs. That’s when the sketch comes in! I like the sky best in this painting, the cloud formations give it some drama. I left out many cars waiting at the light and added the figures to enhance the focal point. It always helps to add people to your work, our eyes are invariably drawn to them!

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6 thoughts on “Tonal values in paintings

  1. lesliepaints

    WOW. Great post about value. I really like how you brought attention to those two figures by adding those long shadows that seem to be moving faster than their creators. 🙂 You certainly have mastered turning the light on in your work, Frank. Your clouds are gorgeous but furthur enhanced by that yellowish light on the road, I think.

    1. frankeber Post author

      Hi Leslie, you are right, I also try to repeat some of the same colors throughout to unify the painting. Another important thing to talk about. Maybe another post. Thank you for your comment!!

  2. Carol King

    Values, values, values. What a great post about values. Your painting is beautiful and I like the people you’ve added and why you’ve added them. I also like seeing your value sketch. Thank you for sharing an important lesson.

    1. frankeber Post author

      Thank you for that, Carol. I am happy if you got something out of it! Sharing and learning from one another is really what it’s all about!

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