Values of Light and Dark in Art – Art Show Judging

When a piece of work is evaluated for an art show, one of the key features most judges look for is a healthy range of values. For a number of judges, this is the most important aspect of an artwork.

Just what are values in terms of an artwork’s presentation?

In this context, the term “value” refers to the lightness or darkness of a given area of an image. This isn’t about the color of the area. It’s about its relative lightness or darkness compared with other aspects of the painting. For that reason, value is also called “lightness” by some.

Let’s look at Turner’s painting “Dutch Boats in a Gale”.

If you imagine this as a black-and-white image, you’ll see that there is a full range of grays represented. It goes from the nearly-pure-white of the tops of the waves, through the softer white of the sail, to the medium-dark of the clouds, all the way down to the near-pure-black of the shadows in the waves.

In general you want to avoid pure white or pure black. Those aren’t colors usually found in nature. You want to aim for a black which is made up of dark colors – dark blue, dark red, and so on. You want your whites to have a tinge of something in them – yellow, green, whatever is appropriate.

The human eye is generally drawn to the brightest spot in the image. In this case the eye is swept in by those frothy white waves to the bright sail, which is the center point of the image. Then from there the eye flows back toward the ships in the distance. So the use of values also influences how the eye moves through the image. This is also key.

An artwork is like a book laying open to be read. Where does the eye start? Where does it flow? Values strongly influence that, along with shapes and forms, which we’ll cover separately.

Let’s look at another artwork. This is “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth.

Where does your eye go first? To the brightly lit young woman. Note her shoulders are not pure white, but they’re nearly white. The eye then follows the woman’s gaze out toward the house, which is much darker. The door is nearly black but it isn’t quite black. Between those extremes, there’s a full representation of values here.

Sometimes in photography images can get “blown out” where the whites are too white, or it can get underexposed where the blacks are too black. Those are tricky challenges to fix. To show a well balanced photo, here’s work by one of our BVAA members – a true master – Al Weems. He wins prizes frequently at our shows. This artwork won first prize at a recent show. Judges often praise his exceptional technique with his range of values.

This image also shows that rules always have exceptions. In this image, it’s the central dark tree which tends to draw your eye first, because no white area “stands out”. Al carefully balanced the whites so that none competed with that tree for the focal spot.

To review again, values aren’t necessarily about black and white. Rather, values are about the lights and darks. It’s often just easier to think about values by thinking about an image in black and white. That makes all the shades of gray become easier to visualize.

But what about pop art styles, which are more of a cartoony / stylized presentation? Let’s look at The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai. This is a woodblock print, so by necessity it was done with only a few ink colors. Even so, Hokusai was able to get a range of values to be represented, from the light end down to the dark end.

There is definitely a sense here that it’s an abstraction of the scene, rather than a realistic version. The colors are bright and the light / dark contrast is emphasized.

But, even so, the whites aren’t glaring white. They don’t create a “solid field of empty”. There’s enough softness / tan in the white that the eye can move through it. The eye tends to be caught by the big area of light in the top left, and then the eye flows down through the wave, to the boat, and in to the white-topped mountain.

There are darks here but again, they’re a deep, deep blue, rather than a solid black. There’s texture and dimension there.

Now, it’s also fine to remember that there are always exceptions to rules. Let’s look at “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Vermeer.

That background is fairly black. The collar is fairly white. Your gaze tends to go to her eyes first, because human eyes are what we naturally tend to look at. But then our eyes tend to go down to that white collar, which draws us along to the shiny earring. The darkness in the background fades away and becomes non-existent.

This background may look black on your screen, but it’s actually a gently textured dark-dark-brown so it’s not as sharp against the image. It lets the main image stand out better.

On the topic of values, though, you can see that the image still has a nice range of values here, from the lighter areas down through the darker ones.

To show what I mean about the grayscale version of an image, here’s the above image converted to grayscale. The only area which ends up solid black is in the top left and that’s probably a result of the camera’s sensor. You can see how there are a wide range of values shown, from the bright light of the collar to the darker areas of the eye.

Try this with your artwork. Turn it into a grayscale version and see what happens. Is it still clear? Do areas get muddy? Is there a representation of all sorts of different shades of gray in it?

So, to summarize, if you’re painting, whether with physical paints or computer screens, think about selecting or mixing your paints so you create those ranges of values. Stop thinking about color for a minute. Think about the lightness or darkness of what you’re working with. Is there a good spread of values, from the lightest lights to the darkest darks and a range in between? Have the darks become too muddy so they’re hard to see? Have the lights become blown out and glaring? Is there enough of a range?

Also, think about how you’re using values to guide the eye. Is there a specific bright area which catches the eye and gives the viewer a starting point? Do the values then help guide the viewer through the image? An image should rarely be “stagnant”. It’s good to have some sense of where the eye should go as it moves around the image. Even with something which seems a single subject, like the girl above, there is still going to be movement of the eye as the eye takes it all in. What is that path? How do values guide it?

If you’re doing photography, learn your camera’s settings. If possible, have the display flash for you if it detects areas which have become solid white or solid black. That helps you to adjust the exposure to fix the problem. Sometimes it’s necessary to “bracket” the image – take multiple pictures at multiple exposures – to get the full range in a final image. The technology of HDR (high dynamic range) images does this automatically for you. If a picture has been taken where a region has been lost to all-white or all-black, it can be nearly impossible to get the detail back in that space. So it’s best to get the photo exposed properly in the first place, so it can then be worked with.

Here’s the Wikipedia page on values and lightness, with examples involving shades of colors.

Ask with any questions – we’re happy to provide ideas!

Photography Print Proportion Sizes Explained

You might think that, when you take a photo, you can simply get it printed as big or as small as you want in standard sizes and the entire photo will get bigger or smaller. However, for bizarre reasons far beyond our ability to comprehend, the standard print sizes nearly all have completely different proportional ratios. That means, as you go larger or smaller, you would gain or lose parts of your photo.

Let’s take a simple example to show how it works. Most cameras take a photo which is a 4:6 ratio. That means, if you make a 4×6 print out of it, your print shows the entire image. Like this:

Now let’s say you wanted to put that image into a square frame. You would lose parts of the image off the left and the right. So you are now at a 1:1 ratio where the width is exactly equal to the height.

Most of us can wrap our minds around that change.

Now, let’s look again at how the different sizes of standard prints differ from each other.

See how when you go from that standard 4×6 print size to the lovely 8×10 print size that now suddenly you’ve gone from a 1.5 ratio to a 1.25 ratio? That means that suddenly your image isn’t quite as wide as it used to be, proportionally speaking.  Instead of a long rectangle you’ve got a taller rectangle. So this is what happens to your image.

You start with this, at 4×6 proportions (1.5 ratio):

The image would be trimmed to this, at 8×10 proportions (1.25 ratio). You lose some left and right edge content.

You’d have to go all the way up to a 12×18 print in order to regain the same proportions you had at the 4×6 size, using standard prints and mats.

Now, keep in mind, if you have a mat cutter and your own printer, you could print your image as large or small as you want. You could trim the image and mat to match any ratio at all. If you want to pay someone to do that for you, you could do that as well. But if you want to go with an organization which will print to specific sizes, like 11×14, then you’re going to have to make your image at the 11×14 proportion which is a 1.27 ratio. It’s very close to the 1.25 ratio above, but just a smidge off.

It may be that your image has “not really important” stuff at the edges that you don’t mind losing. But it could also be that you have gorgeous detail at those edges that you are upset at losing. If that’s the case you might need to get custom-cut prints and mats so you can print exactly the dimensions you want to print.

It’s wise in photography, when you take your initial image, to always leave “extra space” around all four edges. That way you have the leeway to crop and arrange the image in different sizes of prints. If you crop your image too tight in-camera, you’re now stuck. You can’t gain back that extra image space around the edge.

Ask with any questions!

Photos courtesy of Bob See (marigold) and Lisa Shea (cypress tree).

What Defines Good Art?

What Defines Good Art?

It’s a question we discuss at Blackstone Valley Art Association events all the time. Even amongst experienced artists, the question seems to have no easy answers. Many members hold diametrically opposed points of view on some aspects of this.

Oscar Wilde: “The mark of all good art is not that the thing done is done exactly or finely, for machinery may do as much, but that it is worked out with the head and the workman’s heart.”

Many view good art as being art which entices you to stay, contemplate, and think about its layers and meanings.

Nile Rodgers: “Art, well good art at least, takes you to a place you go during the experience of it, and then after you experience it you are different.”

Amitava Kumar: “The thing about good art is that it makes you look at things in a new way.”

Many feel it’s the artist’s talent which brings this experience to life.

Edgar Degas: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

Marc Chagall: “Great art picks up where nature ends.”

Francis Bacon: “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”

We’ve heard from members who have gone to an art show and stared at a specific piece for a half hour, marveling at the impression the piece creates. The person goes away feeling changed and wanting to tell people about that experience. That would seem to be a hallmark of good art.

Here are just a few views from our own BVAA members. The views are all presented anonymously. I’ve used some images from BVAA members to illustrate some points. The artwork I chose to help clarify a comment isn’t by the commenter – it’s just a helpful way to show what the commenter means. We’d love to have more comments in the mix to present all angles to this issue. Please email us in with your own thoughts!

Note that you’ll probably disagree with some of these statements. That’s the point :).

* * *

“All art – photography, painting, etc. – can be judged by the same overall artistic criteria. They all need a good, balanced design. They need a pleasing range of light-to-dark ratio. Attention should be paid to how the eye flows through the work. Skill in execution and time invested in the creation should be taken into account.”

Images by Al Weems (left) and Bev Tinkelenberg (right)

. . .

“Photography and non-photography cannot be judged together. They have entirely different skill sets. A photographer poses the scene, carefully explores the angles, sets the lighting, adjusts the exposure, sensitivity, speed, and other settings. Then once the photo is taken, hours of work are invested in post-processing to bring the image’s beauty out. If just one thing is off with the composition, the photograph cannot be brought to its full expression. There might be no opportunity at all for a second chance. In comparison, a non-photography artist can just slap on paint or scrunch an image and be done. If they spot a flaw, they just repaint.”

Images by Bob See (left) and Lisa Shea (right)

. . .

“Photography and non-photography cannot be judged together. They have entirely different skill sets. A photographer simply finds an existing scene, perhaps turns a dial, and presses a button. A painter must create from scratch a scene, draw it, mix each color, and use proper painting techniques with layers upon layers, all timed to the paint’s drying time. It can take months for the work to be complete.”

Images by Bob See (left) and Deb Bottomley (right)

. . .

“A photograph which is manipulated in any way is not art. The image should be taken on “auto” mode, so the camera most clearly represents the scene before it in full focus. That image should be presented without any alteration or change.”

Image by Bob See

. . .

“A photographer’s camera should be attentively adjusted by the artist via use of the aperture setting (depth of field), time setting (shutter speed), and ISO (sensor sensitivity). This allows the artist to showcase the scene before the user in a way a human would see it. Too often, just using “auto” on a camera creates an artificial, mechanical view of the scene. “Auto” does not represent the way human beings actually view scenes with their eyes.”

Image by Bob See
(This image showcases how changing the camera’s aperture opening size can allow the focus to be on a particular item, which is what the human eye does. When our human eyes point at something, the remaining items in our field of vision go into a softer focus.)

Image by Lisa Shea
(This image showcases how changing the camera’s time setting can allow blurred water which is how the human eye would see it. In comparison, cameras, being mechanical, tend to freeze motion. In sunny conditions, a camera would tend to show this waterfall with frozen-in-time water.)

. . .

“A photographer who simply makes a ‘snapshot’ of a scene is not creating art. They are just documenting nature’s layout and therefore fifty people standing in that spot with similar cameras would all create duplicate images. It’s mechanical, not artistic. The true artistry is when an artist works with that image to bring out their own unique vision of the scene.”

Image by Bob Evans

. . .

“An artwork must be in a classic style and medium in order to be judged properly. That way there is an established set of rules, such as composition, balance, color values, use of perspective, to do the judging.”

Image by Bonnie Frederico

. . .

“An artwork which explores new media and presents creativity in expression should get credit for that excursion of the imagination. The artist invested inspiration into the process which is not necessarily evident in an artist who is daily churning out nearly-identical, although pretty, landscapes.”

Image by Libia Goncalves – a 3D mixed media created with foam and other items

. . .

“Artwork needs a full range of values (light to dark range) in order to be good. Great art showcases that range fully.”

Image by James Hunt

. . .

“Artwork can elicit different emotions by focusing on just one area of a range. For example, just focusing on the midrange can provide a serene, gentle feel which an addition of darker colors might impact.”

Image by Lisa Shea

. . .

“Good art (one which wins a prize) should be the result of explicit effort. An item which wins should represent the artist’s investment of time, energy, and perfected skill.”

Image by Carol Arnold

. . .

“Good art is independent on the amount of time spent by the artist or the degree of training or experience. It is solely about the end result presented to the viewer. If viewers are enraptured by a piece of art for a half hour, it is that experience which defines of good art, wholly separate from the creation process up until that point.”

Image by Lisa Shea

. . .

“Good art must be technically proficient. It should showcase a knowledge of proper technique, whatever the medium. There should be minimal visible flaws.”

Image by Gary Cunningham

. . .

“Good art should intrigue the viewer. Many times, what might seem to be a ‘flaw’ is a way of drawing the eye or emphasizing something in an unusual manner.”

Image by Mike McCool
(Mike’s original photo has been brought out of focus and the sky altered to create an artistic impact which might have been lacking in the basic “snapshot” of this sculpture).

. . .

“Good art is art which, all other things being equal, sells. It needs to be something which most visitors to the gallery would be drawn to buy for their living room. Well-executed flowers and serene landscapes would rate higher than a creepy doll face. After all, the gallery needs money if it’s going to remain in business to have more shows and to help more artists.”

Image by Bob See

. . .

“Good art is art which, all other things being equal, is memorable and provokes a reaction. Art should move and change you. If the art shows the eightieth sunflower you’ve seen in the month, the reaction might be an extremely mild ‘That’s nice.’ If the art is a powerful, gritty exploration of your feelings on an issue, which stays with you for years afterwards, that would be worthy of showcasing. One can see sunflowers anywhere. Something new and unusual will make people think and remember. Even if it wouldn’t tend to sell.”

Image by Bob Evans

Please let us know what other thoughts you would add into this mix!

Also, I used a lot of Lisa Shea / Bob See images because a few of these comments could be read to reflect negatively on the artist. If someone wants to volunteer their art for one of the Lisa / Bob images instead, let me know! I suppose, conversely, if I’m using someone as an example and you’d rather I swap you out, that’s fine too :).

Join in the conversation! Share your thoughts!

Andy Warhol: “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

Photography Cheat Sheets

Just what does the shutter speed on a camera do? What is aperture and f-stop all about? Is ISO a type of soft drink?

It can get confusing figuring out the basics of your camera. Here are some photography cheat sheets we here at the Blackstone Valley Art Association use for our classes.

Please ask with any questions – and be sure to look at our calendar to see what future classes and workshops are coming out. If there’s a particular thing you’d like to learn, let us know and we’ll see if we can set that up!

Most of all, have fun! Keep playing and exploring. The more you try things, the better you get!

Photography Basics

Photography – Shutter Speed

Photography – Aperture

Photography – ISO

These sessions each came with a workshop sheet. Click on one to get to that workshop sheet.

Mike Zeis – Cellphone Photography

Bob Evans – Long Exposure Photography

Ask with any questions!

Demo by Randy LeSage at BVAA 17Nov15

We had a VERY interesting demo session from Randy LeSage last night and I know that I am going to try this technique! The photos below are somewhat of a photo essay/documentary with Randy as he actually producing prints and collages.
These are useful links to the materials that Randy used
Gelli Art Printing plates
Akua Colors