Learning Your Scales Redux
I use a number of different palettes depending on what I’m doing, but the one that gets the most use when I’m in the comfort of my studio is this glass one, backed by a 7 whole tone and 13 half tone value scale. The scale is created very simply by tinting Ivory Black with Titanium white. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!
In this particular photo it’s laid out with colors for a compressed value underpainting, note how there is no value darker than a step 5 on the 7 step whole tone scale. (More on this in a future post.)
I’ve found this configuration very helpful in the following ways:
- This palette allows you to see where on the value range your tubed colors are placed before you intermix them.
- It provides context for your mixtures. For example, if you are working in a dark passage on your painting, you’ll find your mixtures easier to mix and modulate against a ground of similar value.
- This sort of mixing surface is a great aid to memory. For example, you’ll be able to jot down or make a mental note that a certain passage in your painting is roughly a 4 on the value scale, which is a great help when coming back to a painting after a few days.
- I find it incredibly useful for keying a painting to a particular range of values. For example, a nocturne may be compressed down to the lower three tones whereas a foggy morning sun rise will fall somewhere in the opposite, upper three tones.
- Finally, its super easy to clean at the end of the day or even after a prolonged multi-day painting session. Sometimes I’ll leave mixtures on the palette for the entire duration of the painting’s production, with their constituent colors noted on the periphery of the pool. This way I have a ready reference that is related to the actual paint on the surface of the painting. It makes it easy to get back to those exquisitely tuned neutrals that are normally so elusive. If the paint dries in place, no worries, my razor scraper is always at the ready, bringing that smooth glassy surface back whenever I need it. As useful and sexy looking as a handheld wooden palette is, it can’t do that trick!
When I first started using this sort of palette set up I faced ridicule and jeering from some of my more romantically minded colleagues. Hell, even I myself worried that it would become a crutch. Years later I’m happy to report that it has actually enhanced my understanding of value generally speaking. When I’m working plein air now, or using a hand-held palette, and the panic sets in, I simply have to take a deep breath and ask myself, “what value is the palette?” to produce a sudden feeling of calm. Oh painter, I urge you, always know what value your mixing surface is and how its related to what you are mixing!
I think of the value scale in terms of high notes and low notes. Value forms the core of the work, its the melody and the rhythm. Color is the harmony that accentuates and enriches the composition. It makes the values sing. Keep in mind that everything is relative, except for the fixed points of black and white on the palette. These alone are fixed. Be thankful for these limits. You’ve got to learn to work your magic between the white queen and her royal consort.