On Painting: Izzy's Logic of Color and Light- Part II "Intro to Value Keys"

Homework for Peter Han's Dynamic Sketching Class
It is my humble opinion that great teachers are really masters of distilling a concept.

They read, learn, gather, compute, and then spit out a clear and simple breakdown of all that they've learned.  My favorites have always been those that can do this while entertaining me.

I'm trying my hardest to stand on their shoulders and share with you some of the fundamental aspects of painting and make sure we all have fun while doing it.

When last we talked, I covered the wonders of Contrasts as some of the basic tools in image making. If you are struggling with understanding concepts that I cover as I continue this series, take a few steps back, reread the previous articles and focus on practicing the things that give you that eureka art boner for a while before moving on.

I mentioned in my last article also that we are kit bashing our educations often at the cost of fundamentals.

This is true, but without getting alarmist, it is also a bit worse than that.

In our fevered desire to make that sexy new image -to soak up the sweet delicious internet fame- we aren't taking our time really focusing on singular concepts and mastering them one by one.  Again, this is an incredibly necessary function in learning, and one that I think a structured art education can really benefit.  Whether you choose school, or not, focused and purposeful practice really is the best way to learn.

Sharkpig!  Don't be like Kova!
Bite off little pieces of new information.

Chew them for a while.

Savor the flavor.

 Don't be like my bull terrier Kova and hork everything down all at once.  That's a great way to end up puking what you consumed right back into Izzy's lap in a barely digested lump.

We, the internet community, are voracious consumers of information.  In order to progress and grasp fundamentals it's important that we let go of that urge to smash through it, to be the first at the finish line, the first to show we know something new.

The real winners in this race are those that shut up, practice, explore, and absorb.  Those that don't sit around in coffee shops dropping names and talking shit.  They are the ones whose names get dropped, because they worked their asses off to understand every aspect of their craft down to the molecule.

The proper intensity I expect of my students!
So, please, in the name of all content creators out there, from writers to game developers, to people trying to create fresh IPs-  Slow down!  Absorb!  Digest!  Consider! Study!

Life isn't a speed run.  No matter how much Facebook makes you think it is.  Whether you take it fast or you take it slow, the game will always end.  So, hanging from that cliff with tigers above and below, stop and relish that strawberry.

In other words.  Take your tender time when it comes to the fundamentals of your art education.

Well!  That was quite an aside!

I'll leave it, though it seriously meanders off topic, because I think these are still good things to consider.

Now.  Back to our originally plotted course.

Even though I am parting the veil on the basics, I am sure you can see how integral these concepts can be in your painting, no matter what your level.  You read about the essential concept of contrasts, last time.  There is so much more to explore with them, but in order to really get into their nitty and or gritty, we need a little bit more playing field.

Today I introduce the humble Value Key.

The fundamental notion of value keys is no less important than our contrasts in painting.  But you will quickly see how they compliment each other, and how you can't have thoughtful value contrasts without well constructed keys!

The following should be a reasonable primer in understanding a value key's purpose and implementation.

Value keys are simply the value constructs we are working within on our painting.

In value you only have the gradient from pure black to pure white to work with.  This sounds simple at first, but in reality that's a massive amount of values to play with.  It's a veritable Zeno's paradox of half steps lighter and darker to the point that the human eye can't really discern them.  

A value key is meant to decisively limit the available values in that whole black and white scale.  Put simply, a key is a gradient of values compressed within the greater gradient of all values.  Within the new key, you reestablish the furthest reaches of your lightest light and darkest dark.

Anytime you download an image or painting  you like.  Try desaturating it.
Again, I set a hotkey to View/Proof/Custom- Working Grey Dot Gain 20%
Study the values that the image really does have available to it, and pay attention
to where it might lean on the gradient.  Is there a way to simplify that?

In the diagram above we see a light and dark key.  The light key's darkest dark is actually a light grey.  A painting with this particular key would use that darkest value to represent 'black'.  Likewise the dark key has a midtone representing 'white'.

A great way to think about keys is in the concept of 'white'.  A great teacher and mentor of mine once told me, "White is never really white."  Hot damn if he wasn't correct.

If you take a 'white' piece of printer paper and lay it on the ground outside your front door.  Around noon in the full light of the sun, the paper is white.  Around nine PM under the dim street light, the paper is white.  Either way though, the 'white' is relative.  If you took a picture of each scene with the paper at the center, the lighting situation would give you your value key.

The paper during the day would be the white in the light key, and at night it would be the mid grey or even darker in the dark key.

This is the magic of relative value.  Another clue in the mystery of simultaneous contrast!  Value keys are simply the broadest form of control in regard to your value relativity!

Though it can tempting to use every value in a painting, and on rare occasion it might call for it, moderation is almost always the route to a stronger painting.  That moderation is the value key.  If you go into a painting half cocked and not considering it you are bound to run into trouble.

For one, if you use all the values available, there really isn't anywhere to go, if you want to punch something up.  Second, a full contrast key can be murder when diagnosing a problem painting.  You are likely guaranteeing a full repaint, instead of a partial one.

Certainly, solid control of your value key can make for a subtle and beautiful image, but don't mistake what I'm saying as an argument against high contrast, either.  Contrast very much lives in the land of value keys, and I will explain further on that later.

In traditional language value keys would be called high key, meaning mostly lights with minimal darks, or the opposite, low key, in which the image is primarily darks with minimal lights.  Obviously you can infer what a mid key image would entail.  How about a contrasting key?  It's basically the names for the value grouping you use in your paintings.
-Keys are extremely useful in setting parameters for yourself as you begin your paintings.  Also, when your painting is finished, like contrasts, they provide excellent diagnostic tools for why something might not be working.-

I've always thought the old terms of high and low were confusing.  Because I am a practical fellow, I have always liked to use the terms light, dark, mid, and contrasted keys.  It is simpler to just use the word for what something is.  I include the original wording in case you get your hands on an older book, or you are coming at this more academically trained.

Bison Dream  would be a fair example of a mid dark key painting.
(damn the iPod dates this one... also the date, tho.)  Notice also,
that there are some very light grays in there.  But no true blacks.  Weird, huh?

Whisper is another old one, this one lives in the light key realm.
Years later and I still suck ass at hands. Haha!
Keys are extremely useful in setting parameters for yourself as you begin your paintings.  They are also great for when your painting is finished.  Like contrasts, they provide excellent diagnostic tools for why something might not be working.

When you first sit down to sketch, or as I often do it, mentally design your painting, you should be thinking about your key pretty much immediately.  I mean it.  If you have an idea for your image in your head, you should already have a rough notion of the key.

Example: You want to paint an elven archer standing among the dunes of a vast desert drawing a bead on a messenger drake soaring on the thermals.  Bam, you should have something in your head already, if you have any chops at all.

Great!  Now stop, and think about the narrative and possible lighting.  Day? Night?  Trees?  Structures?  Camera angle?  What tells the best story?  

Though this is a photo study, notice that I establish the value key immediately.
I had a rough break down of overall values in the first ten minutes of painting.
Multiply and screen blend modes on your layers are fantastic for this.

Making a decision about your key will help decide your compositional elements, because as every artist should come to know; two dimensional gray scale composition is boiled down to the arrangement of light and dark shapes in a field of space.  Don't forget that it can also work in reverse!  Your decisions on compositional elements can also change your overall value key!

If you decided on a light key, you already know the values you will get to play with when you design.  This will simplify your decision making process down the line.  It may influence your camera angle, your points of interest, how objects are placed in the space, and obviously your lighting situation.  Hell, if you are working traditionally it can give you the color and intensities of your underpainting and sketch colors.  It's all there, ready to go, because you made and stuck with one decision!

I think it's important to make a quick side note here.

It is common practice now, thanks to digital media, to sort out the details of your painting and arrange the characters and objects before you figure out the lighting.

Certainly, it is possible to do this, but if you hadn't been considering your lighting situation (which greatly affects your value key) from the get go, you may end up with a composition that lacks the impact it could have had if you designed it from the beginning.

Professionals that understand and know how to build and manipulate their value keys can make quick work of a concept using modern methods, but for those that are teaching themselves, they might be missing out on grasping the basic understanding of the decision making that is happening before lighting is even getting tackled.

Be careful when you are using those easier systems.  This is really one of those points where knowing how things are done further down the educational line can actually harm you in the foundation of your artistic education and understanding.  Do yourself a huge favor and devote some time to understanding the value keys you intend to use!  Having a complete knowledge on how, when, and why, you use the different value keys will give you massive jumps in speed and accuracy in your work.

Anyway,  I want you to be thinking about how your value key will work because it will force you to recognize problems in your painting as you are going.  Value mistakes are always immediately evident when you are operating within a key.

The relationships of your values is one of the reasons you should always be checking your image in gray scale, but also making sure you aren't unintentionally breaking your key is very important.  Again, do not just desaturate your image with an adjustment layer.  Look at it in gray scale to see your values accurately.

Remember that your key directly affects the overall values available to you in the composition.

Check out a couple of mistakes I've made in the past.

There's such a thing as being over sensitive about the key
The key is too tight making a distinct lack of contrast.

In the little pilot boy painting above you can see what happens when you are too narrow with your key.  Things can unintentionally look dull or dead.  The simple addition of value accents would make this baby pop!  I really didn't understand accents then.  We are getting into them too soon now.  I will have to remember to add them in to my section on finishing your painting and final special effects.

In this crap painting, I clearly was too interested in texture.  It breaks the value key
and creates distracting contrast.  Not just in value but also in detail!  See how the previous article fits?

Jarringly bad anatomy aside.  This old painting shows some early exploration with lost and found edges.  The creeper's corset thingy and background cast shadow end up value grouped.  The lack of contrast there makes for an overall interesting split in the lighter shape.  I'm no composition master, but this was me trying to study that particular academic effect, I believe.  (This painting is probably nearly ten years old now, so hard to say for sure.)

So, as you can see, values can easily fall into the camps of 'too much', and 'not enough'.  Without fail these are the most common mistakes I see when diagnosing a painting's value key.

Here are some situations that might indicate something is wrong with your key.

If your painting seems 'spotty', you likely have too strong of a contrast going on with in your key.  Or, you possibly have values in your painting that are not within the constrained key you've established.

If your painting seems muddy, your value key is probably not unified into a proper composition.  In this situation you are often in the correct key, but the original composition has been lost to misplaced values.  We will cover this more in the next installment of Keys.

If information is nearly lost in your painting because everything is far too dark or far too light, you need to open up your key just a little bit more to introduce values that will make your painting's lighting situation more interesting.  A prime example of this would be a creature or character skulking in a very dark field with nothing to offset the darkness, it just becomes a dark mess.

This is a sweltering piece of crap for a number of reasons.
The value key is broken as well.

In the original sketch for this old magic card, you can see the medium contrast key I'm putting in place.
I wanted a foggy environment with a reflective body of water.  Here is a situation that definitely calls for contrast.
See also: sunny days, man made lighting scenarios, images in the vacuum of space.

When I was first studying keys I found it useful to keep a small black to white scale with eight to ten steps on a top layer of my painting.  I would mark the key I wanted in a small range.  Then I would try to follow it, even color pick from it.  I would regularly pull it up when I looked at my painting without color.  It really helps to keep your values from meandering while taking the twenty eight hour bus to Render town.

It is also vitally important to study reality when it comes to your value keys.  In much the same way learning anatomy from life and photos forces you to pay attention to those oft looked over details.  You will find the reality of value keys have a vast amount of subtlety and relative nuance.  

Download photographs, or better yet, take some of your own.  Photographers are forced to understand the relationships of light and shadow and two dimensional composition because the former literally begets the latter.  Remove the color from these images and squint at them.  Remember that shit?  SQUINT!  

Once again, when you squint, you are simplifying values, colors, and edges.  In the case of keys, squinting helps you to suss out the available chunk of the gray scale that the image is using.  Largely dark with some lights?  Largely light with some darks?  High contrast?  Analyze and understand all the varieties of keys out there.  Gotta catch'em all!  The more you have, the greater and more subtle your compositional palette will become!

And remember purposeful practice in regards to the values available to an image in reality will give you that keen eye to recognize when something isn't fitting in your own painting.

I hope it is obvious I have only scratched the surface of the cavernous and fascinating deep that is Value keys.  There is so very much more to cover!

In the next installment of On Painting, we will delve further into how keys work, and the greater implications of them in our paintings and their place in the logic of light!

If you have questions or have a specific painting problem tying into one of my articles, post below with your issue and a link to the artwork.  If it works as an example, I will add it to follow up posts for articles where I try to address specific real world stumbling blocks with paint overs.

Here's an article I wrote a while back on the Advanced Principles of Creature Design

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Michael Nolan said...

These posts on painting are absolutely fantastic, I love them. Also, you do the greyscale check of your painting by just putting a layer of black over the image and setting its style to saturate. Looking forward to more, look at me learndening

Anonymous said...


Please keep this coming!

hazem ameen said...

Hey, Izz. I had a few questions regarding your wonderfully articulate and extremely insightful article.
One: Is Value key used in an Image as whole? Or is there a sub value key for every different component of a painting? Because, like you said, everything has a different base value.
Two: I didn't understand the muddy pitfalls and lack of contrast in the image. aren't we supposed to stay within the value key? But you said you'd cover more on that on the next article that I eagerly wait for!
And thanks again for all this free information.

Jeremy Gordon said...

Only thing I still don't get about value keys though is like if you set a low value key in the darker tones, does that mean you should not include any white at all? Or just break the key in your focal point?

Alyse said...

Thanks for this post! I'm really looking forward to gathering more info for my notes! (I'll also be going back through old posts, which I'm sure are fantastic as well)