Value Blocking and Project 1

For class on Tuesday, February 16, please finish blocking in overall values for your master study still life.

Value Blocking Basics

What Is Value Blocking?

Value blocking is a method of working from general to specific to build the overall composition of an artwork using distinct shapes of light and dark.

Why Do We Want to Block Values?

Blocking in the overall value scheme is certainly not the only way to begin a two-dimensional artwork, but it’s pretty darn-tootin’ effective. Why? Because you are able to quickly see relationships between parts of your total painting or drawing before you get locked in. Formal elements like value change relative to what’s around them. Example: a light gray looks lighter next to black than it does next to white (Don’t believe me? Check out the the crazy pic below. That really is the same gray in the dots!) Therefore, it’s important to establish a general layout early.

Working general to specific is pretty much always a good thing in art… a great thing, actually. Considering the big picture before focusing on details typically leads to more successful compositions, and… BONUS… it saves you from the revisions, reworking and regrethuge_mistake that often accompany trying to obsessively perfect things a section at a time. Trust me, nothing drives you to copious amounts of chocolate faster than realizing you painted the best eyeball in the history of occular-themed artwork, but you have to get rid of it because you didn’t plan how it would work with the rest of your piece.

How Does Value Blocking Work?

The basic process of value blocking begins by considering your subject in terms of two values: white and a light to middle gray. If you are working from a source such as a still life, landscape, model or photograph, make the decision that every piece of light and shadow you see is either white or gray. If an area is bright, say values 1–3, leave it white. If it is darker, make it gray. It is absolutely, positively, stick-six-post-its-on-it crucial to
shadow_shapessee the light and dark areas you’re blocking as distinct shapes. The shadow under an eyebrow, for example, should be considered every bit as real and defined a shape as the eyebrow itself.

Once you have laid out your entire image in white and gray shapes, refine, refine and did I mention refine? Make a second pass adding a third value, usually a darker gray or black to separate values 8–10 from the mid-tones. Refine your shapes as you work. Depending on your project goals, you can then make additional passes, each time extending the range of values.

In Conclusion…

Because of its relative speed and its ability to help you break down complex forms into manageable shapes, value blocking is an incredibly powerful tool. In fact, I use it all the time, particularly for figure drawing, where capturing essence quickly is crucial.

For more information on the process, please check out the following video tutorial:

Step-by-Step Value Blocking for Project 1

  1. Examine your chosen still life to determine the main masses of light and dark. Use your value scale to help, especially where color confuses the issue. Remember, one of the goals for Project 1 is to help you see the value underlying the colors, so give yourself some serious practice.project1_state1_value_comparison

  2. Mix a good amount middle gray by adding black to white to create value 4 or 5. Place this gray in a small lidded cup or gather it into a pile to help prevent it from drying out as you work.

  3. Block in any value from 4–10 using your mixed gray and the biggest brush you can get away with for the job (this is a good habit to get into; more on that in upcoming weeks). You may want to add a little water to your brush to reduce marks, which, at this stage, we want to keep to a minimum. Remember as you paint to consider each value area as a distinct shape. Although you can use your transferred drawing as a general guide, you want to consider the interior highlights and shadows as shapes in and of themselves.project1_state1Worried about losing your drawing? You can leave a fine white line at the edge of shapes that would otherwise bleed into one another. In my painting, for example, I left a line around the right edge of the plums and basket where they connect with the dark background. These lines will get filled in during upcoming steps.

  4. Step back to compare your initial layer of value blocking to your still life. You can’t always see what’s what up close. Do the value shapes feel accurate? Don’t forget: squinting isn’t just for those of us who forgot our glasses anymore; it can help you see value more easily. Add grays and/or whites to refine as necessary.

  5. You may also want to test your piece against an image of your still life online, since detail is lost in printing. Good quality images of each painting are available by clicking the thumbnails on the Project 1 Step 1 post.

  6. Block in the darkest values (8–10) using black. Remember to use the largest brush you can manage for the job, to add water as necessary to reduce brush marks and to consider each value area as a distinct shape.project1_step4_04

  7. Step back to compare again.
  8. Refine your value blocked painting as necessary adding white, gray or black to clean up highlights, mid-tones and shadows respectively.

2 thoughts on “Value Blocking and Project 1

  1. Dear Del,

    I just got back from college. I thought tonight was class. I was wrong, it was last night. Should I start painting my still life? The only thing that I can think of is that my heater stopped working yesterday and I was busy trying to get a heating man to come. It took the best part of the day, but they did come and fix it. I didn’t realize until this evening that I got my days mixed up.


    Judy Buckner


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