Bracketing the Values
How dark is the part I’m about to paint? This is the essential value question, because it invites the artist to consider the relative dark or lightness of every element of the picture. And the answer is always the same: Compared to what?
I like to look for nearby shapes that establish the value range within which the new shape will work. I want to find something that is darker than what I am about to add, and something that is lighter. Basically, I want to know how each element will fit in the overall continuum of values. This will not tell me the precise value that will do the job best, but it gets me in the ballpark. Then I can usually tell whether I would like it a little lighter or darker.
It can be tricky to remember to think about value when most of your attention is on another variable, especially when the other variable is color. Developing the habit of bracketing, or locating each new part of the picture in its place on the range of values keeps the distractions from causing you to lose track of what you have deemed essential.
Tom Hoffmann, Unchained, 2009, watercolor on Arches cold press paper, 11 x 15 inches (28 x 38 cm)
Looking at the nearby shapes, it is clear that the strip of purple that goes up the sides and across the top of the picture needed to be lighter than the main brown rectangle, but darker than the light triangle in the foreground. That range leaves room for refinement. The purple strip could probably have been a little darker or a little lighter, and still have been seen as a white wall in shadow.
Don Marek, Truck Stop, 2010, watercolor on paper, 21 x 28 inches (53.3 x 71.1 cm)
While this may appear to be a painting all about intense, saturated color, it is attention to value relationships that quietly makes it possible for the artist to have some fun with color.
Below: This is the solid foundation upon which Marek’s playful interpretation is built. He remembered to ask if the values were correct, even as he turned up the intensity of the colors