Black and White

As painters we must remember that the visual spectrum (perceived light) is far greater than the limited range of paint. Paint is capable of going as dark as pure black pigment, and as white as pure white pigment. The value range of paint is approximately 10 equally spaced steps between white and black. (This number may vary depending on who you ask. Some debate that there are nine, ten, or eleven steps by counting white as “zero”, effectively making “ten” eleven, etc.)

To recreate the effect of perceived light, we must plan and make compromises to suit the painting. A crude example: Standing outside on a bright sunny day, observe a white object. Then observe the sun. The sun is tremendously brighter (higher in value) than the white object. To recreate this effect in paint, we must adjust the image so that the white object is not painted white; pure white is reserved for the sun. Otherwise, the white object and the sun would appear equal.

Paint cannot faithfully record the brightness of the sun. The painter can, however, adjust values accordingly so the sun appears brighter relative to its surrounding values, thereby imitating the “effect” of the bright sun in relation to its surround. (For simplicity I have omitted consideration for color intensity, or chroma, which would also play a part in this example.)

Comments (2)

  1. 5:36 pm, February 18, 2013Sebastian O.  / Reply

    I have been painting without much consideration for value range. There are 10 degrees as you say, should each painting have as close to 10 degrees as possible?

    • 9:40 pm, March 3, 2013thomas  / Reply

      @Sebastian O.
      Well… that’s a tough question to answer. Yes, including the full breadth of value would perhaps create a more dynamic image. On the other hand, it’s all relative and it really depends on what you’re after. You’ve probably heard the term “high key” or “low key” to describe a painting. This refers to an image which spends most of its time in the higher or lower values, so to speak. But that’s not to say it doesn’t or can’t include the whole range. I think some of the strongest images tend to be weighted in one end or the other. With these, more often than not, close inspection reveals they indeed contain the full range, despite the overall impression of being higher or lower as a whole.

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