The Value of Values

This is the messy stage of painting.  When I first started painting I thought everything needed to be perfect from the very get-go.  I would spend hours on one spot, move to another and there discover, everything was off.  At that time I didn’t even really know what was off, it just didn’t feel right.

Value study
Value study

Then I took a color theory class from William Cochran–teacher extraordinaire.  The first course was on values.  There lies the key to a good painting.  You can have all the colors and perspective correct but if your values are off the painting is flat, there’s no star of the show and to the untrained eye, like mine was when I first started, you stand back and wonder what is off.  

There is no right or wrong in how you get to your values…for example, when I’m working en plein air, I may do a quick value sketch in order to determine who or what will be the star of the show, but after that I go straight to color.  Starting with the darkest darks.

My studio paintings often start out with a quick under painting in order to set my values.  I am setting the ‘tone’ of the painting and while quickly smearing paint around I begin to also get a feel for the brushstrokes I’ll need to establish roundness, feathers and so on.  You’ll notice that within about an hour, the painting has gone from a flat, one-dimensional surface to having three curvaceous ducks on a log, all just with values.  It’s already beginning to tell the story of the end of their day.  The sun is setting, striking the water and casting bright reflective patterns onto the log and one of the ducks. Feathers are being put back into place with care, tails are wagging…it’s time to settle in for a good nights sleep.  Good night all!


  1. I am a bird watcher and artist as well, and I agree completely on getting the values right; it makes all the difference. Really nice start on this one, I can’t wait to see the finished painting.

    1. kmcgheeart says:

      Thank you. I’ve got a little color on the canvas. Much more to do today. Hopefully a progress picture by tomorrow. I look forward to checking your blog out this weekend when I have a few minutes. Enjoy the birds 😉

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