Value shapes, Pattern, Colour shapes

At the most basic level, colour is not complicated. Two colours are placed side by side in a painting. You have the choice either making them different, in a limited number of ways, or of keeping them similar. There are certainly times when one choice is better than the other. Poor colour relationships happen when the painter doesn’t consider the choices.

To improve your ability to see colours correctly, I suggest you try this agenda. Never begin by asking the question “what colour is it?” The answer will be a one-word generalization-too narrow in scope to be of value. First determine what value it is. Some what between white and black. Then determine what temperature it is - either warm or cool. Third, ask what the intensity is - somewhere on the scale from pure, intense colour to neutral grey. The last question, which you probably would have answered by this time is “What colour is it?”

Seeing green

Instead of saying the tree is green, your response will be, the tree is a dark, warm, neutral green. You might also answer light, cool, pure green. This approach arms you with much more specific information. Keep in mind the contrasts are complementary. As dark values make an adjacent light appear lighter, so also a warm complements a cool, a pure complements a neutral and any hue complements its opposite. Your choices are limited to value, intensity, temperature, or hue changes. Observe the painting titled ‘conversation’.

When value wins, colour loses. This is not to say the colour of choices are not important. Value paintings should have beautiful colour, but this painting’s shapes are visible because of their light values against dark values.

Light next to dark

 Colour is self-explanatory  



An arrangement of great shapes is essential to great painting. Once you have designed these great shapes and drawn them on paper the next requirement is that you make them visible. I know this sounds obvious but believe me? it’s not. I have seen hundreds of paintings in which contrast of values, colour and textures have been reduced to an indistinguishable mush. It is not necessary to speak loudly, but it is essential to speak clearly.

One approach to making the shapes and patterns of our paintings visibly clear is separating them by value contrast. When you do so colour takes a secondary role. You need only identify what value to make a shape. Forget the local colour and establish the value contrasts that will make the shapes and composition clear.


Value painters tend to be representational painters. Their concerns are how light and atmosphere affect the value and colour of objects in space. The study of these observations is called aerial perspective. While aerial perspective is not a science, it come close to science, because the results of light on objects and on the landscape are observable.

These results do not call for interpretation or subjective reasoning. Objects that recede into the atmosphere appear lighter in value, cooler in temperature and lose their texture definition. All you have to do is remember a few simple rules, apply them to some interesting shapes and success is yours. In the hands of the best and most experienced painters, the results of values and aerial perspective can be magical.

Determining contrast levels

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a shape somewhere on a scale between white and black. Some use tone as a synonym for value. Colour is self-explanatory. Pattern is the most nebulous term, because of its similarity to texture.

When I refer to pattern I mean a collection of marks (Generally small in size) that, when placed together, read as a shape. Another definition of pattern is surface variations. After designing the best possible shapes for a painting and deciding on their relative sizes and positions in the painting, the next critical decision is how to make the shapes visibly clear to those who will be looking at the painting.

The word ‘reads’ has been coined for this purpose. An instructor might say, “The shapes of this painting ‘read’ clearly”. Shape clarity is the result of contrast - contrast of value, pattern or colour. It is important that you remember that these three elements function independently of one another.

A shape created by value, such as a light shape surrounded by dark, reads regardless of its colour or pattern. The same is true of shapes created using colour or pattern. A red shape against a different - coloured background is identifiable no matter the pattern or value contrasts. A busy, broken-up shape played against flat, quiet shapes maintains its identity no matter the value or colour contrasts.

If it’s your intent to make a painting with an emphasis on colour, and you fail to reduce value and pattern contrast, you will produce a painting that is not about colour at all. It will be a painting in which value and pattern have stolen the show, leaving colour in a supporting role.

It is important that you determine which of these contrasts will dominate a painting. For if you don’t decide, and do a painting in which there is equal contrast of colour, value and pattern, the result will be a in which each contrast neutralizes the others.

Great painters understand this and that is why they are great painters. Andrew Wyeth is a value painter. His paintings have reduced colour and pattern contrasts. John Marin’s work emphasizes pattern and has minimal contrast of value and colour. Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were in love with colour and realized contrast of pattern and value would challenge their objective.


Tissa Hewavitarane

Wednesday, 28 July 2010