Use Values To Create Strong Compositions

Use Values To Create Strong Compositions

Values or tones are the relative lightness and darkness of colors with the color removed. It has nothing to do with color. It is the backbone of a painting. The most important design element of a painting. If you took a photo of a painting and converted it to black and white, that would give you the values of each color.  The lightest value being white and the darkest black. Key is another term used by artists. A painting can be low key, using the darker values of a gray scale. A high key painting uses the lighter values. Below is a simple gray scale.

values in composition

To use the values in painting, let's keep it simple creating a painting with three shapes of varying sizes. Now, use three values, light, medium and dark. Each of those three shapes have a distinct value. But, you can have an infinite variety of color within each shape.

Once you start painting different values within a shape, you start breaking that large, simple shape into small pieces. Each of the three shapes should be a different size. If you make your largest shape a dark value, the painting will have a different mood and feeling than having that same shape in a light value.

So, you must be careful or you will soon lose the power of your composition. Be consistent with your values within those simple, large shapes to hold your composition together. I used a "real life" painting that demonstrates the simplicity of shapes and values. This is a plein air painting in which I made the decision to move the trees and group them into one large, dark shape. I placed them against the light of the mountain in the background.

By making these changes, my painting has a better composition than what I saw in reality. I do have color shifts in the trees and mountain with warmer and cooler colors, but basically I kept those large shapes intact with the values. Below is the  color version of the painting so that you can see the color shifts and variety of colors in the shapes. In the grass I have bits of violets, pinks, greens, golds and yellows, creating a visually more exciting painting, but again, keeping those values consistent.


I hope this post gives some clarity to the use of shapes, values and colors. What do you think? How have you used values? Have you changed your subjects to unify your paintings? Becky Joy

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Abstracts, Are There Rules?

Abstracts, Are There Rules?

I've got a pet peeve about abstracts! Abstracts are not just a feeling or paint thrown on a canvas. Some of you may disagree with me, but I've gotta tell you what I believe.

Are there rules? Of course there are! If you have been reading my blog, you know that I am a believer in the foundations of good painting and abstracts are no exception. I very seldom have painted abstracts, but I do love a good one and own a couple.  An abstract or any painting for that matter, to be successful has the same rules for composition as a realistic painting. To lead a viewer into a painting, you still need the same tools.

  • Contrast and values
  • Color, saturated and unsaturated
  • Edges, soft, hard and in between
  • Shapes, variety in sizes and shapes
  • Detail vs looseness (it's all relative)
  • Activity, active vs passive
  • Paint application, variety
All of these concepts can be applied to abstracts. All artists study the same concepts whether you are an abstract painter, realistic painter or a sculptor.

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How to Clearly Define Your Focal Points

How to Clearly Define Your Focal Points

Are Your Focal Points Clearly Defined?

A first, quick glance at your painting is important. Some questions to ask yourself may be:

  • What is your eye immediately drawn to? Was this your intension?
  • Does it make sense? 
  • How can you more effectively define your intended focal point?

You might ask a friend for a second opinion. Sometimes someone else might see something different than you do. The study of composition is ongoing, limited only by your imagination. Good composition is the foundation of a good painting. With a good, strong composition your painting reads well from a distance.

The brushwork and details are what add interest to a painting at a close viewing distance. A well thought out composition creates unity. One feature should dominate above all others. Focal points can be an area, not necessarily an object. It can be as simple as a brushstroke.

First you must start with an idea and establish your area of interest. Then to support that area, group values to create large simple masses of unequal sizes. These are the foundation of your composition. You will use these masses to design your painting. Creating value studies, using markers, pencils or mixed gray acrylic paints in four different neutrals, can help you in the process of making a cohesive composition. The color and brushstrokes will strengthen your design.

After the value studies, try different brushstrokes on a blank canvas to get the feel of different strokes and edges. Each artist uses their brushstrokes differently making their paintings individual, like a fingerprint. As you move through your painting into the center of interest, you will slowly create more contrast and color intensity until reaching the focal point. At your center of interest you will have more contrast and color intensity than anywhere else in the painting.

Sharp edges also attract attention. Soft and disappearing edges can lead a viewer to the focal point. Directional lines, like brushstrokes or shapes of objects can also lead the viewer to the center of interest.

Another suggestion would be to create passive areas and active areas. One of these areas may act as your focal point. In a well thought out composition, you are leading the viewer, creating a melody to unify all the notes.

Don't forget that you are the conductor. These are ideas to consider when composing a painting, whether the painting is an abstract, still life or landscape. Now you need to paint and paint and paint again.  

Keep Painting, Becky

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How to Know When You Have a Good Composition

How to Know When You Have a Good Composition

A reader asked me recently, "How do I know when I have a good painting composition? This question took some thought.

Here are some questions to help you "see" your painting composition.
  • Does it look balanced?
  • Are you looking all over the painting, but not specifically one place?
  • Is there a place in the painting that dominates your attention?
  • Does it dominate too much attention so that you don't see anything else?
  • Where your eye goes, is that where you want it to go?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Is the color harmonious and pleasing?
  • Is there too much information throughout the painting?
  • Is there a way to lead the eye into the painting?
  • Is there any place that stops your eye from going to the focal point?
  • Does something look out of place?
  • Does the painting look pleasing to you?

These questions don't give you formulas for composition, but are intended more so for the end process when you think you might be done. You should always start with a well thought out plan before getting to this point.  


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Sunset Painting Progression - the Beginning

Sunset Painting Progression - the Beginning

How to Paint a Sunset

I've used my imagination in the sunset painting - I'm creating from my imagination, as is the usual with my sunset paintings. I start how to paint a sunset with a concept and ask myself the following questions.

What kind of clouds?

Will the sun be behind clouds?

Below the horizon?

Will it be a quiet and subdued sky?

Will it be a riot of warm colors?

A storm?

Light airy sky?

In this particular sky I decided to have some light airy clouds. I wanted some of the pinks in the clouds that were just wisps of clouds. I also wanted to contrast the pinks with some greens in the sky. Light and color always hook me. It's what I love to work with and sunsets have both. I want the sky, clouds and ground to feel as if light is bouncing all over.

As I paint any sunset, I'm am always balancing the warm and cools in color along with the values, light and dark.

At this point, it looks like dabs of color all over the place. But, there is a strategy here. I'm starting with the sky itself, not the clouds. You can see the pinks of those wispy pink clouds and the greens I was talking about. Also it is warmer down at the bottom of the sky. That will be where my sun is. That was the first choice that I made, where the sun would be.

I've got more of the sky painted above. It is a play of colors next to each other. My next decision I wonder about is how much blending and how much of the brushstrokes should I leave. I like a mix of thinner, soft edges and thick paint. The two together is an interesting mix.

I have quite a bit more done here, I changed my clouds shapes as I painted. I felt they were too heavy for what I wanted. I also felt that I got a little carried away with the bright pink. I didn't want to overdo it. So, I scraped some paint out. I have the overall shapes here, but a lot more work to go. I was at a good stopping point for the day. I did notice that my oranges are a little too dark in value, so I'll be tackling that tomorrow. I will also be adjusting some of the colors. I want the clouds a little more gray with the use of juxtaposed color next to each other.

So tomorrow, stay tuned, more to come.

If you want to learn more about how to paint a sunset, check out my online workshop on painting sunsets.


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What are Elements and Principles in Art?

What are Elements and Principles in Art?

Composition Elements and the Principles of Design are the building blocks of art.

Principles of design are the organization of elements to give a piece of artwork unity. Composition Elements are the parts, ideas that are used in the design. Principles are the directions that can be used to put those elements together to create a statement, movement, organization and unity.



The parts that make up a painting.


A linear mark made by pen or paint, a dot moving in space, both implied or real. Also can be the meeting of two shapes to create a line.


A defined, contained area, organic or geometric. A positive shape automatically creates a negative shape in the surrounding area


All lines have direction. Horizontal lines suggest calmness, stability and repose. Vertical lines give a feeling of alertness or a feeling of height. Diagonal can create movement. Curves can give a feeling of speed


Some list values as a separate element. I have included in with color, because it is integral with color even though it stands on its own.


The physical texture of a piece of art. Also the feeling of texture in an object in the two dimensional.


Is reflected off objects. Color has three main characteristics: value (lightness & darkness), hue (color family) and intensity (purity of the color).  


How to apply the use of the elements to create a successful painting. The directions about how to use the elements


The arrangement of the elements to create a feeling of stability.


All parts of the painting are related in a way to create a sense of oneness.


The placement of elements to create a feeling of movement using line, texture, shape or form.


The area of the painting that catches the viewer's attention as in a focal point.


The repetitious placement of line, shapes, or color to create a mood, a cadence in the painting.


Relationship of one part to another comparing size or amounts.


A difference between objects.


The gradual change or progression of change in color or value relationships to one another. I will follow this up with subsequent posts in more detail on each element and principle. Have a good day painting and learning,


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Line - An Element in Painting

Line - An Element in Painting


An identifiable path of a point moving in space.

A line is one-dimensional and can vary in direction, width and length. Lines often define the edge of a form. Lines can be horizontal, diagonal, vertical or curving and thick or thin. They can lead a viewer around a painting and communicate information through their characteristics whether they are actual or implied.

Actual lines are real such as painted lines on a road, tree branches, telephone poles or electric lines. The edges of objects are defined by contour lines, like the edge of a table, a boulder, the side of a building. Contour lines define the edges of the object and the negative space between them, such as the space fence posts.

Implied lines are lines that are interrupted and our mind fills in the space in between. Examples would be a row of windows on a building with wall space between, a row of separate plants in a garden, or fence posts lined up in a field. Our mind completes the line. Implied lines also can extend beyond the picture plane as with perspective lines.

REMBRANDT VAN RIJN (1606 - 1669) A Winter Landscape

Geometric and Organic Lines

Geometric Lines are rigid and uniform and convey a sense of stability, reliability and conformity . They are usually found in man-made objects and rarely found in nature

Franz Kline (Untitled)

Organic Lines are fluid, irregular or curved and often found in nature. They convey a sense of spontaneity, gracefulness and dynamism.

Edgar Degas (1834 - 1917) After the Bath

Horizontal, Vertical and Diagonal Lines

Horizontal Lines create calmness, stability and tranquility.

Vertical Lines create height, alertness, power and strength

 Diagonal Lines create action and drama. 


Horizontal and Vertical Lines together create strength and permanence.

Descriptive Lines

Descriptive Lines give us information. They are used in handwriting, crosshatching to suggest volume,  decorative lines and caligraphy. 


Expressive Lines

Expressive Lines is an endless list of emotions conveyed in lines. They may be short, long, thick, thin, heavy, light, smooth, textured, broken, flowing, erratic, dark, light, variable, calligraphic, authoritative, tentative, irregular, smudged, uneven, even, straight, crooked, choppy, graceful.  

Flat Lines suggest calmness


Erratic, Sharp Lines suggest anger, impatience.  

Meandering Curving Lines suggest slowness, unhurried time.


Wide, Thick Lines suggest strength.


Gestural Lines

To create line in the movement and emotive qualities of a figure or object. rembrandt-van-rijn-1606-1609-saskia-asleep

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Blocking-In - Preparation First

Blocking-In - Preparation First

Blocking-in a Painting

Another topic which was requested by several people is blocking-in a painting. I'm covering the block-in in this post, then it leads to the finished painting in another topic about simplifying. But, simplifying really starts with the block-in.

First, make a simple notan - black & white sketch. I usually use a marker, because it's simple and quick. Below are two notans that I made from the featured photo. The second, I tried putting a few more things into it, but notice how disjointed it looks compared to the first. Simplify. Simple is always better. When I speak of light and dark. Darks don't mean all the values in shadow. If something looks closer to the darks, block it in with the rest of the darks. So, I'll start the block-in.  




Sketching on the canvas is a simple line drawing of the major shapes, nothing more.


Use thin paint to start the painting. Always - think to thick.

Don't pick up white at this point. The lighter green grass I added yellow ocher to it. No white helps to keep the painting from getting chalky. Now, obviously in the light areas of the water I added white. There was no other way to get the paint the value that I needed here. If it was predominantly a little darker value, I would have possibly not used white.

Also remember that this thin area of paint doesn't have to be completely covered in paint as you continue painting. What you want to do is look at the predominant big shapes. If one shape has more values in it, avoid putting too many other values into the space. By doing so, you break up the space and it becomes spotty. This is the start of a simplified painting, with a simple block-in.-in process. Here is another example of a simplified painting which I started with the same block-in process.



Squint at this photo. You will see the lights and darks in the following painting.


I simplified the shapes. Even though each light and dark area I see more values than what I painted, I ignored some of it. The painting makes a bigger impact when you limit your light and dark areas. I'll pick up on this with the next blog post and continue the painting. Creatively yours, Becky

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Compositional Element of Direction

Compositional Element of Direction

Composition Element Direction

Direction is a powerful tool that can be used in composing your paintings. There are four directions that can be used: vertical, horizontal, diagonal and circular.  

Directional lines can help to create a mood in a painting. Vertical lines can give the feeling of strength or power. For a calm and stable atmosphere use horizontal lines. Diagonal lines create more action. Consider using line in your design to help you create mood in your paintings.

When you approach a scene, consider the mood. Can you convey that feeling by incorporating line into your painting. Sometimes the scene already has a dominant line that dictates the mood of the painting. Other times you may be able to compose and change to create the mood that you want.

Below are some paintings using line. See how they feel to you. What mood do they create?

Horizontal lines dominate

Vertical lines dominate

Diagonal lines dominate

This painting has a dominate diagonal line, although there are verticals also. The diagonal line gives the painting some energy and movement so that it isn't static.

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The Compositional Element of Value

The Compositional Element of Value

Composition Element Value

The lightness or darkness of a color or grays, white being the lightest, black the darkest. Sometimes referred to as tones. Values create spacial illusions and form through gradations in values and separates one object from another.

Tints are colors with white added to them. Shades are colors with black added to them.

A painting should be either predominantly light or dark, not equal parts. A predominantly light painting with few darks is considered to be a high key painting. A low key painting is predominantly dark values.

Low Key

High Key

To simplify painting, we traditionally break down values into 10 units with white being #10 and black being #1.

Values are arguably the most important element.

  • Focal points are created with the relationship of value with the eye drawn to light values.
  • The relationship on values to one another create impact in a painting.
  • Values give forms to objects making them look three dimensional on a two dimensional surface.
  • Values can create moods in a painting.
  • Depth in a painting is created by gradations in values.

Mid Values

Strong Light & Dark Values

View the differences between a value sketch with mostly a mid value range and a value sketch with strong lights and darks.

Creating Mood in Values

Creating a Sense of Time of Day

Colors have values

Green Values

Red Values

Blue Values

Yellow Values


Each color has their own value.


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