The Power of Middle Values in Painting

The Elegance & Power of

Middle Values in Painting

         watercolor painting of sailboats by John Singer Sargent                                           Unloading Plaster        Watercolor and Gouache         John Singer Sargent

by David Rankin

   In order to help you understand this subject of middle values better, I’ve selected a number of paintings from artists of the 1800s. The focus of your attention and evaluation in each painting will simply be, "Where are the darkest darks?"

   However . . . I am not referring to black.

   When I use the term "darkest dark", I am simply referring to the darkest value used in a painting. In many cases the darkest value in a painting may in fact be a middle value. It’s just that in training watercolor painters, I have to get them used to a more accurate assessment of values. And all too often they interpret darkest dark to mean black. In some of these paintings you will see how the darkest dark is nowhere near as dark as black.

   I’ve created this graphic to help identify precisely what we are looking for in each painting.

                  David Rankin Watercolor Value Guide                                                David's Value Comparison Guide

1. The Darkest Elements: The first rectangle on the left consists of both a darkest dark black as well as a dark gray. These are the first visual elements to look for in any potential painting subject.

2. The Lightest Elements: The middle rectangles represent all of those elements in any painting that will remain very bright and vivid, very light colors, and the white of the paper.

3. The Middle Values: Once you’ve evaluated where the darkest elements of a painting are, followed by which elements will remain very light, bright, or white paper, everything else in that subject must fall somewhere in the middle values. I find often that 50%-75% of any painting is actually middle values!

   In order to clarify this process we’re going to study the artwork created by several 19th century painters in order to see how they manipulated these three different color values to achieve depth, drama, and mood in their paintings. There are only a few of these that are  watercolors - the rest are oils. But the concept applies to all paintings regardless of the medium.

Only 3 Steps Required

oil painting of western landscape by Edgar Alwin PayneThe procedure is rather simple. When first evaluating a potential painting subject–either directly while working outdoors or from photo reference in the studio–you engage in what I call my observation and evaluation recipe. This is a precise set of perceptual procedures that you can use to evaluate and subject.
Step 1.  To engage in this procedure, start by looking for and evaluating the very darkest features of any possible painting subject. Try to  develop the artistic habit of doing this first. Where are they? How dark are they?
Step 2.  Once you’ve identified the very darkest features, switch and now focus on the very lightest features.
Step 3.  Once you have identified where the very darkest and the very lightest features are, note that everything else in this particular subject is going to be painted in middle value colors.
Above: Canyon de Chelly, Oil, Edgar Alwin Payne

The Amazing Illusion of Depth

oil painting of birch trees in winter, by Frederick MulhauptThis whole subject is driven by my desire to help you create better depth in your paintings. This perception of visual depth in a painting is an illusion. There is no real depth. It’s a flat piece of paper or a canvas with some pigment on the surface. It’s magic! The ability to create a painting that appears to have visual depth is a magical illusion created by the successful manipulation of several visual factors, most of which are the values. Building a painting using these procedures will result in a painting that succeeds at convincing the viewer that there is depth where in fact there is none!
Left: Birches, Oil, Frederick Mulhaupt


oil painting of western landscape by Howard Butler

When I use this process for evaluating potential subjects for my own painting efforts, I want to know where these darkest elements are and in which spatial plane they should be in my painting: the foreground, middle ground or background. Below you can see three illustrations indicating where the darkest darks can be placed. There are actually nine such illustrations that also show the whitest white and middle value placements. However, the easiest and most important to use as a guide are those focusing on the darkest darks. All of the paintings shown here have distinct value arrangements. And the single question to ask is, "Where are the darkest visual elements in these paintings and why?" "Did the artist place the darkest elements in the foreground, middle or background?"
Left: Late Afternoon in Zion Canyon, Oil, Howard Russell Butler

       David Rankin's spatial planes guide

   The artists of the nineteenth century who created these paintings knew exactly where in those three spatial planes they wanted their values to be placed. The darkest elements of any painting can be placed in any one of the three spatial planes. It is up to you to design the most effective value placements which will make your painting successful. Learning how the masters designed their work can help you build much more effective compositions.
Please note: Identical values should not be placed in any two planes, only one! Otherwise you will flatten and weaken the illusion of spatial depth.

                  oil painting of river by Edward Harrison Compton                                                               Winter's Loveliness                Oil           Edward Harrison Compton

   Can you identify which of the three main value arrangements Edward Compton used to paint this landscape? Ask yourself the the darkest visual elements are—in the foreground, middle ground or background?

   They’re in the middle ground. The whitest, lightest, elements are in the foreground. The elements in the background are grayer, paler, and weaker. Because Compton assembled his values in a correct manner the illusion of visual and spatial depth is easy to see in this lovely landscape.

                oil painting of mountain lake by John Frederick Kensett
                                  Lake George                       Oil               John Frederick Kensett

   In the oil above, Lake George by John Frederick Kensett, can you see how the darkest features are in the closest foreground? And can you see how the various values get grayer and weaker with less detail as they recede into the far distance? This is what I call the most common value arrangement you’ll see in everyday life and nature. Kensett did a masterful job of creating an illusion of space and light in this painting. He did it by carefully adjusting the darkness of the features in the painting as they receded into the distance.

   At this point can you also see that there is very little dark brushwork in the painting? The darkest darks are only in this foreground area. The painting itself is 95% all middle-valued colors!

           oil painting of ships on a fjord in scandinavia, by Hans Frederick Gude                      Motivet Hamtat fran Spinnkusten langs Sorlandskusten          Oil         Hans Frederik Gude

    In this dramatic painting by Hans Fredrik Gude we again see the darkest features here in the foreground. However, look at that very lightest feature—that brilliant patch of overhead mid-day sunlight breaking through the clouds and casting a very bright streak of sunlight across the distant water. Can you see how that very bright sunlight feature on the water is what creates the illusion of depth by seeming to lie behind all of these darker ships on the water? In this scheme the lightest feature is actually in the middle ground with light gray features further away in the background.

   As this painting illustrates, the lightest features can be in any of the three spatial planes of distance. For our purposes in developing a superb working method for our own painting procedures, our main focus must stay attentive to where the darkest features are first. If you can learn to pay close attention to this recipe, it will give you an unerring eye for any potential painting subject’s value arrangement.

   The more you evaluate the artworks created by these artists from the nineteenth century, the better you will be at evaluating your own ideas and efforts. These paintings were created stage by stage, with the artist slowly developing the overall impact and mood by carefully adjusting the values in various parts of the painting on the fly. The artists shown here were highly trained and knew what they were doing 150 years ago. You, as well, can develop the same skill that these earlier artists possessed.

   This is what I refer to as an observation and evaluation skill. You learn to first observe nature. You visually study the natural phenomena of light, space, and value. And then you evaluate what you are observing. You identify certain natural features and make a mental note of what you are seeing. If you can, you create a sketch or a quick study that helps you recall your observations later. If you haven’t the time to sketch the subject’s observations, you take a photo and make a mental note. But use your eyes first! Your eyes are far more sensitive than any camera.

   That’s how I work both in the field working directly from nature and in my studio back home. I’ve put this exercise together to help you develop and refine this skill set by studying these nineteenth century paintings. They did not have such easy use of cameras and cellphones to record images. They had to develop an excellent set of observation and evaluation skills. By studying the paintings they created we can learn to see and recognize value structures quickly and accurately.

                oil painting of ships on a bay with clouds and sun by Hans Fredrick Gude
                           The Fjord at Sandviken                  Oil              
Hans Frederik Gude

Recipe: Dark – Light – Gray

   Look carefully at another painting done by Hans Gude in 1879. Can you see how this painting uses the very same value arrangement as the one before it? The darkest features are again in the foreground with that brilliant blaze of reflected mid-day sunlight breaking through the clouds onto the water in the middle ground. The far distant landscape has some darker features but they are not as dark as those in the foreground. They are painted just a bit lighter, paler and grayer with hardly any details. It is this precise and carefully painted arrangement of values that creates the perceptual illusion of depth where in fact there is none.

   Here again, notice how very little dark brushwork there is in this painting. If you were able to lift out all of the darker brushwork you’d see that the painting is actually 90% middle values strategically placed.

              oil painting of landscape by Jacob Isaackszoon van Ruisdael
                           Landscape with Ruins       Oil       Jacob Isaackszoon van Ruisdael

Same Recipe: Dark – Light – Gray

   Here is another very dramatic landscape painted 200 years earlier than Hans Gude’s. This artist also created a masterful illusion of light and depth, with the darkest features in the foreground, bright light in the middle ground and grayer paler features in the background. It was all done with mostly middle values and a bit of darker brushwork.

                 oil painting of western landscape, Howard Russel Butler
                            Mountains of the Sun                     Oil                Howard Russell Butler                              

Recipe: Gray – Dark – Light 

   Here’s a variation in what I’ve shown you thus far. Here the darkest darks are not in the foreground. They’re in the middle. The lightest brightest features are in the background plane. This is why I recommend you identify where the darkest areas are first. The reason I’m showing you these paintings done by the artists of the 1800s is because they used correct methods resulting in clearly brilliant and effective paintings. When using photo reference instead of paintings you’ll see how much more difficult it is to see these distinctions. These artists however, knew what they were doing, so in their artwork it’s usually relatively easy to see these relationships. By seeing them like this you will begin to see them in photos as well. All of this is meant to build up your ability to go outside to paint and create far better works of art.

   I’ve shown you how I observe and evaluate every possible painting subject and idea. This isn’t just a theory to me—it's a process I’ve developed over the course of 30-40 years of painting in watercolors. It works every time with every subject. But here’s a variation that will show you precisely just how important the middle values of any subject are to painters, especially watercolor painters. It’s a painting that has no real dark brushwork at all.

          oil painting of an ocean wave, by Alexander Harrison
                           The Wave                                           Oil                           Alexander Harrison

   It’s all middle values—but what a great painting. Alexander Harrison created this dynamic image using neither a darkest dark nor a bright white. It’s all middle values and it’s fabulous even without those extremes in value. In my method, however, that darker middle value green color he used in the breaking wave is this painting's darkest dark. That’s precisely why I use the term "darkest dark".

   This is to show you that you can indeed create elegant powerful paintings that are comprised of primarily middle value colors with very few extremes.

                  oil painting of woman strolling in the Shinnecock Hills of Long Island, byWilliam Merritt Chase
                              Shinnecock Hills                      Oil                        William Merritt Chase

   Once you understand what to look for beginning with the darkest features, then the lightest, you quickly realize in paintings like this that those elements are indeed important to the overall impact of the painting. But it’s the overall middle values, which are usually the bulk of the brushwork, where you need to pay special attention. The middle values in this painting set the overall mood. The very few dark features establish the full value range.

                 oil painting of a poppy field by John Ottis Adams
                          In Poppyland                             Oil                          John Ottis Adams

   Here we do indeed have a darkest dark area and it is in the far distance. By placing those darks in the background, this entire flower bed appears to come forward toward us in the spatial illusion.

   Can you see how Adams draws us into the illusion by placing the lightest brightest colors leading us back into the middle ground spatial plane, gradually darkening and graying the area in the foreground? This was done in order to better establish a visual illusion of depth. Your eye is attracted by the lighter, brighter colors and drawn back into the middle ground area. There’s actually sound science underneath these artistic processes—our attention is naturally drawn to brighter colors and stronger contrasts. Notice just how much of this painting is covered with middle value paint.

oil painting of boats in harbor, by Frederick MulhauptAt left: Winter Harbor, Oil, Frederick Mulhaupt
Where are the darkest areas or features in this dramatic harbor painting? Can you see how quickly your eyes were drawn to the few really dark features? Most of this painting is middle values which the artist artfully used to frame the very brightest area of intense mid-day sunlight shimmering off the icy water. There are a lot of darker features which in fact aren’t that dark. They’re kind of a dark middle value. They represent what I refer to as near-darkest darks. They aren’t the darkest darks in the painting. Those are very few indeed. But they are dark enough to force your gaze into the bright icy middle and back into the depth of the painting. I can actually feel the crisp cold air in this painting. A masterpiece of controlled artistic value judgement. Can you see how he manipulates our vision by purposefully graying the whites in the whole bottom third of the painting? There is cooler bluish-gray brushwork on both sides of the painting leaving the brighter whites in the middle. These brightest areas are framed by darker warm colored brushwork that literally forces our eye back up into the middle of the composition and backwards into the illusion of space. Masterful!

watercolor painting of harbor, wharf and boats, by Ted Kautzky.

At left:  Harbor Light, Watercolor, Ted Kautzky
Here’s my favorite watercolor painter of all, Ted Kautzky. I learned how to paint watercolors from Ted Kautzky’s classic book – Ways with Watercolor when I was just 16 or 17 years old. Kautzky had such an astounding natural eye for color values and that’s how he started most of his paintings. He’d paint the darkest darks first. In this painting, for instance, he developed the whole right side of the painting first. He taught me the value of looking for and establishing the darkest darks first. The painting is a masterpiece of middle values. We see here how he placed the darkest darks in this immediate foreground and the lightest area out there on the water to provide that boat with maximum contrast to catch your eye and draw it back into space, thus creating a masterful illusion of depth. To assure your eye of the far distance, notice how he grayed that furthest hill on the far side of the harbor in the distance. Also notice how he developed the ship on the left with some delicate dark brushwork and near-darkest darks in the hull, but he purposefully lightened the walls of the wharf and structures on the left. That subtle value difference visually brings the ship out away from the wall and structures and provides yet another feature that helps create the illusion of space and depth in the painting.

                  watercolor of house on a pier with sea gulls, by David Rankin                                                   Drying Out                       Watercolor                       David Rankin

   Here’s one of my own 12 x 16" watercolors painted in
transparent watercolor on Arches 140lb. rough paper. I love how metal roofs can create such electric brilliant reflected sunlight right after summer rains. I also love how shorebirds, having gotten drenched during the storm, will find somewhere to bask in the heat of the sun to dry out. For the purposes of our subject here can you see how I placed the darkest dark brushwork in those pylons that support the pier? The bait shack is actually grayed enough to set it back a little distance in the illusion—  even in the dark openings in the windows. If the darks in the bait shack were the same degree of darkness as the darkest brushwork I used in the pier structure, it would have flattened the illusion and weakened it. This painting is all about the middle values which I used to paint around the intense bright metal roof as well as all of the birds drying out.

                       watercolor of Bedouin and tent by John Singer Sargent.
                                  Bedouin Camp                        Watercolor                      Sargent

Sargent’s Mastery of the Middle Values

   John Singer Sargent is one of my all-time favorite watercolor painters along with Kautzky and a few others. I thought I’d show you just a few examples of how Sargent worked his middle values. He did a bunch of these paintings of Bedouin tribesmen and they’re all great. But look at how little he had to add of darkest dark brushwork to direct our eyes to the main figure seated in front. Everything else is developed with a near full range of middle values. Then he adds just a few brushstrokes of darkest dark telling us to, “Look right here at this guy and his turban. This is where I want you to look.”

                                watercolor painting of a military camp by Sargent.
                                                   Military Camp                        Watercolor                     Sargent

   Here is a painting that is all middle values—no real darkest dark focal point brushwork—just elegant middle values that work just fine. Was he actually done with this painting? Did he get disturbed and leave it? Or was he perfectly happy with how it looked at this stage and simply felt done? No matter, it is a masterpiece of middle values.

                  Oil painting of a hermit in olive groves, by sargent
                              The Hermit                                 Oil                                         Sargent
   Here is a Sargent painting that had a huge effect on my understanding of middle values years ago. I came around the corner of the museum gallery in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and found myself mesmerized by this masterpiece. In fact it took me about a minute to actually discover the old hermit there in the lower right part of the canvas. The incredible abstraction of middle value brushwork that Sargent used to create the illusion of dappled light and shadow on the forest floor is made even more challenging because he forces our gaze up into the darkest darks in the deep shade of the forest. The visual impact is tremendous as Sargent plays with our perceptive faculties and allows us to gradually discover not only the hermit but two lovely deer as well.

                  watercolor of a school on a canal in Venice by Sargent.
                           Scuola di San Rocco                       Watercolor                            Sargent

   In my mind this famous Sargent watercolor of a school in Venice is on the opposite end of Sargent’s skills compared to the Hermit painting we just looked at. In The Hermit, Sargent forced us to gradually discover the various features hidden in broad daylight. But here he quite literally drags our gaze to the right and down that canal off into the distance. He succeeds in this perceptual feat even with this very attractive large red wall beckoning us to spend more time inspecting it. It’s his masterful execution of middle values coupled with his ability to guide our eye right into his illusion that yields such a profound sense of artistic satisfaction to viewers like us.

photo of David Rankin
It is this skill set that sets transparent watercolor apart as the most sublime of all artistic mediums. I have lots and lots of truly talented and masterful artist friends who often ask me, "Why don’t you paint in oil or acrylic?" My answer is simple, "Because I can paint in watercolor!"

David Rankin is a renowned watercolor painter, teacher and author. His two special artistic interests are wildlife and India. He has received numerous awards and national acclaim for his paintings. His work has been featured repeatedly in articles and books, and his own book, Fast Sketching Techniques: Capture the Fundamental Essence of Elusive Subjects, was published by North Light Books in 2000.





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