Landscape painters need to have a good understanding of the importance of value in successfully depicting the landscape on a two dimensional surface. In order to have our painting ‘read’, that is to show the planes of the landscape as well as its depth, atmosphere and scale, proper values are essential. As we’ve previously written, Carlson’s Theory of Angles is a great place to start as an overarching concept for understanding values in the landscape. But, it is only a starting point!
Another layer of complexity is added when we think about how to depict the varying atmospheric conditions, times of day and effects of light that we observe in Nature. Again, values are the key to success here. And, we often refer to this process as ‘keying’ the landscape.
For example, in order to key your landscape painting to depict a sunny day as opposed to an overcast day, you must learn to shift the value range up or down the value scale as well as understand the proper value steps between the light and shadowed parts of each plane in the landscape. It sounds complicated, but with careful observation and application of some basic concepts, this knowledge will allow you to paint what you see more accurately and also change the key of your landscape when painting from memory or imagination. This combination of observation + knowledge, gives you the ability to paint any light effect or time of day. It also gives you the ability to convincingly change the time of day or light effect from what you see in nature or from what is depicted in your reference material. This is a key skill in landscape painting (pun intended).
Here are a couple of examples. In this painting by Willard Metcalf (American, 1858-1925) we see a beautiful effect of bright sunlight.
When we convert the painting to greyscale, we can see that there is a wide range of values from light to dark. Also, the lights and darks within each plane are several steps apart. Look at the grass (ground plane) for example and notice that there is a 2-3 step difference in value from light to shadow.
In this painting by Claude Monet we are treated to a beautiful effect of low light and an overcast sky. The colors are more muted and the values in all planes of the landscape (sky, groundplane, uprights, slanted) are closer together.
The greyscale of this painting shows a close value range and a shift toward the darker end of the value scale. The shifts between light and dark in the foreground are less than than a step apart, and the white sails of the boat are a step or more darker than the lightest value on the scale.
By understanding both the value range and the steps between light and shadow found in each light effect or time of day, we can learn to key our landscapes effectively.
P.S. Our first online class of the year Understanding Values in the Landscape starts January 7th 2022! Master the use of values in landscape painting and learn how to key your landscapes successfully. Also, our 2022 schedule of online classes is now posted and open for registration. There are Class Bundles available to help you save. Join us!