Mastering the 7 Key Components of Value: How to Paint Like a Modern-Day Rembrandt

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Color drawing of an apple showing the 7 key componets of value

Are you ready to take your painting to the next level?

Are you ready to master the 7 key components of value?

Would you like to know the secrets of painting like a modern-day Rembrandt?

If you are a beginning painter, practicing the ideas in this article will put you light years ahead on your artistic path.

If you are a seasoned professional, why not take some time now to practice the fundamentals?

But why be so concerned about values in your painting? 

Values are the relative lights and darks in your painting, from pure white to black.

Like a musicians musical scales, they are extremely important, and should be practiced in the same way.  Can you imagine professional musicians never practicing their scales???

Here are the 7 key components of value to master in your painting:

color drawing of an apple showing the 7 key components of value
Color drawing of an apple showing the 7 key components of value

1. The Light Planes

The light planes are the surfaces which catch the light and reflect it back to your eye. These are also called the "Up" planes because they are faced up toward the light source.

You should decide the proportion of light planes verses dark planes (component 2) early in the composition of your painting or photograph.  You should let one of these win in the composition.  In other words, let either the light planes or the dark planes be the main part.  You never want a 50/50 symmetrical balance of light and dark planes, as this would be very boring.  Just remember: Let one win.

2. The Dark Planes

These are the planes that are in the shadow and reflect very little or no light. These are also called the "Down" planes because they are facing down and away from the light source.

The dark planes are a rich area of color. Rather than using black to show shadow in these planes, try instead using complements of the light planes.  Or use a dark that you mix from your artist palette with rich greys that have lots of juicy colors.

These dark plane colors can be warm or cool.

I never use black in my color palette.

3. The Half-tones

The half-tones occur when you blend the light and the dark planes together on your canvas. You can literally just blend the light and the dark colors together with a clean dry brush using a back and forth motion.

Or you can mix your halftone separately on your artist palette and then apply it while smoothing together between the lights and darks.

4. The Core of the Shadow

The core of the shadow is your darkest plane.  Again, stay away from black here.

Use this part of the composition to spice up the color.  Use a deep blue or green.  Or it can be a chance to bring in a deep and rich darker grey value that has been warmed or cooled.  These are the fun decisions.

If you need a very dark color here, try mixing thalo green and a little alizarin crimson.  You can push this mixture to the blue range by adding a touch of ultramarine blue.

5. The Reflected Light

Painting the reflected light is always one of the most fun and rewarding parts of the composition.

It's here that you get to bring in atmosphere to the painting, the sense that all the objects seem in the same space and are operating in the same kind of atmospheric light source. It's a chance to bring unity and harmony to the to all the elements and bring them together into a unified whole.

For instance, if you have a white bowl sitting on a red table-cloth, the reflected light on the bowl should have some of the juicy reds of the table-cloth.

6. The Cast Shadow

The cast shadow is often one of the more important elements in the composition.

Shadows cast from the main elements in your painting can be used as important elements that pull your eye along and through the composition.  Think of the cast shadows as paths that you can use to help the viewer move along and through the elements in the painting from one to the other.

Again, stay away from just using black mixed with your key color.  Use the shadows as a chance, once again, to bring in deep and rich grays that you have mixed from complements.

7. The Highlight

The highlight is usually the lightest value in the painting.  It is generally pure white mixed with a touch of color to bring it into the warm or cool range.

The highlight occurs mainly on objects made of glass or metal.  It also occurs on objects that are wet.  Your eyeball, for instance, has a very strong and pronounced highlight.

Use highlights sparingly and judiciously.  They can add power and drama to a composition when used wisely.

Highlights are often (but not always, of course) the last element added in an oil painting.

Putting it all together. Recommended art supplies

If you are a beginning painter, practice these ideas by making many monochromatic value studies.

Try some still life, portrait, or landscape images.

Just take a tube of black and a tube of white oil paint to make the quickest studies.

I recommend the Winton student grade Winsor & Newton oil paints for their quality and economic price point. Click the picture below to shop for the Winton black and white oil paint.

Winton Titanium white oil paint by Winsor Newton
Winton Ivory black oil paint by Winsor Newton

Also, another way to practice your value scales is with grey scale pastels. This is one way that I found to be the most economic and at the same time create high quality and beautiful works of art.

Jack Richeson carries a line of high quality soft pastels with the grey value scales. Click the picture below to see more details about this set of Jack Richeson grey scale pastels.

Jack Richeson grey scale pastels. Set of 20. Click the pic above to see more details about this pastel set.

Be sure that you include all 7 key components into each study to get the most benefit.

If you have painted or photographed in black and white only, let us know your experiences in the comments below.


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