Value Scale Examples
Underpainting and Mapping out the Grey-Scale
Invented in the Medieval period, underpainting in a value scale has helps artists to simplify the process of painting. It is an opportunity to work out drawing, composition, perspective, texture, lights and darks and visual rhythm in a composition - creating and correcting until it is perfect. After which, color is added to complete the work of art.
This process saves time on mistakes and money on paint. The final result when using oil paint, allows light to magically pass through multiple layers of translucent paint, creating a glowing affect or an "inner light" which so many Old Masters have captured in their works of art.
This technique has changed names throughout the centuries and has been known as; Value Scale, Black and White Painting, Grisaille, Dead Coloring Process, Chiaroscuro and Grey Scale.
Artists such as Jan Van Eyck, Giotto, Bellini, Giovanni, Titian, Caravaggio, Valazques and Rembrandt all used this process in their artwork. The popularity of this process began to decline in the late 1800's, however it remains a valuable tool, especially for beginning artists.
The Simple Still Life
Start your painting with a simple still life. This means one object. An apple or a cup is perfect. If this is your first painting, avoid anything reflective or with a complicated pattern on it. Just the basics to start.
Consider this a test canvas or a simple assignment. More than likely, your finished painting won't be hanging in The Metropolitan Museum, release any stress you have of perfection. This is only an exercise.
Place your object on a table that will be about eye level. This will help you to not strain your neck or back. Make sure that it is stable and will not move as you work. Use a clamp light and light your object from one angle (see pictures). The light should be close to the object creating a harsh contrast of lights and darks.
Thumbnail Sketches and Composition
A thumbnail sketch is a tiny sketch that should proportionately resemble the shape of your canvas. If your canvas is a square, your thumbnail sketch should be made in a square. Draw a few small sketches with pencil testing out a variety of placements for your still life object. Play with the composition by changing the scale of the object. Move it to the right or left, up or down. Take a look at what happens if you magnify the object and make it really big, allowing it to fall off the edges of the canvas. More than likely, you'll find that almost anything is more interesting than painting an object actual size right in the middle of the canvas.
Transfer your thumbnail sketch to your canvas using vine or willow charcoal. Draw lightly and then blow off any excess dust. Only draw in large shapes to give an idea of placement. Remember, you are painting not drawing.
Mixing Your Colors
Black and white is not necessarily two colors. To get a really interesting, rich black, try mixing ultramarine blue with burnt umber. The mixture varies depending upon the brand of paint you are using. In my classes, students use Reeves. The percentage is 60% Ultramarine Blue to 40% Burnt Umber to make a really rich black.
Start by mixing your black paint. Then squeeze out a blob of white paint on one end of your palette. Scoop about 90% of the white pile of paint to what would be the next value in the scale and add a minute, tiny, sparing amount of your black mixture into the second blob of white paint. This will result in a very light grey color. Then scoop about 90% of that mixture into your next value scale and add a tiny, minute, sparing amount of black paint into this pile and so on and so forth. You're aiming for at least 9 values in the scale. The final scale should go from white through all the light grey values, to mid-tones and into dark values and end in black.
Always add black to the white paint. You can always go darker, but it takes a lot of paint to go lighter. I recommend starting with your scale on a palette, (I recommend a sheet of glass on top of white foamcore for a convenient palette) and after it is accurate, transfer small swatches of it onto a corner or side of your canvas as a reference.
Uses of Grey Scale as an Underpainting
I like to tell my students that a good under painting is 60% black and 40% white. This doesn't leave a lot of room for mid-tones. Obviously, if this is taken very seriously, the outcome would resemble just black and white with no grey. But, I say this because painting black and getting dark contrasts is the most difficult challenge for a new painter.
Start by painting in your largest shapes. Some artists paint in their middle tones first, others like to start with the darkest areas first. I personally like to see students work with the darkest shapes first because it forces them to go dark.
Go slow. Take your time. Make sure to stand back from your painting often. If you have a digital camera, take photos of your process. A digital photo can also help you locate weak sections of your paintings, indicating what needs to be darker and what needs to be lighter.
White is the last color to be painted for the highest highlights. You may have to wait for your paint to completely dry so your white doesn't turn into a light grey. If you are using oil and your painting starts blending too much, let it dry before you continue.
If you enjoyed this exercise, please visit my other hubs. I have been teaching painting at ArtSpace in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the past 6 years and am currently putting up my Beginning Painting Syllabus. Please visit my other articles:
- How To Paint - Complimentary Colors – A guide to color palettes
- How To Paint – Texture – Creating recognizable patterns
- How To Paint- Drapery – Creating emotion through objects
- How To Paint – Simplify Patterns and Visual Rhythm
monalisa artist india on February 25, 2012:
its a nice one thank the artists for there teaching.its all what i wanted to know some more.wth luv monalisa
babzz on February 12, 2012:
Great information. I have been struggling for years and this is exactly what has been missing in instructions. HOORAY
carlarmes from Bournemouth, England on February 04, 2012:
I am finding hubpages a great source for finding art techniques, thank you for your hub I found it useful.
Laura Spector (author) from Chiang Mai, Thailand on July 03, 2011:
Thanks markomitic! I hope its inspiring information. Cheers!
markomitic from Toronto on June 28, 2011:
Great info. Nice to remind myself about that. I am a painter.Thank you.
Laura Spector (author) from Chiang Mai, Thailand on January 27, 2011:
Hi SamboRambo, Underpainting is such a great skill to acquire. I hope you find some time. And, good luck with PhotoShop! Thanks for stopping by.
Samuel E. Richardson from Salt Lake City, Utah on January 11, 2011:
I majored in art, studied art history, painted all my life, but it never occurred to me to use underpainting techniques. This articles inspires me to try it out. However, it may be a while, as I'm falling in love with PhotoShop art.
Laura Spector (author) from Chiang Mai, Thailand on February 18, 2010:
2besure, Thank you! Many of my students are recently retired and I'm amazed at their level of talent and commitment. I think while you'll find it to be relaxing, it will also be challenging and a really unique skill to learn. Good luck! I hope you love it as much as I do!
Pamela Lipscomb from Charlotte, North Carolina on February 18, 2010:
What an informative article. I always felt I had a seed of talent in art. At 58, I am thinking about taking a few art classes.
Laura Spector (author) from Chiang Mai, Thailand on January 04, 2010:
Thank you Judy! I'm glad you stopped by. Walnut oil? Wow! That's what Leonardo da Vinci used in his paintings. It's hard to find and from what I understand, very expensive. I'd love to see some of your works. I'll pop by your hubs and see if you have anything posted. Thanks for the link!
filarecki from United States on January 04, 2010:
Wonderful article. I've been painting with water soluble oils and have just started using this technique of laying everything out in values and then glazing with colors thinned with walnut oil. It really does make things a lot easier.
I learned this from someone in a forum I have been active is developing. If you are interested in checking it out go to