Tonal value study

It’s very enjoyable and educational to paint using only black and white paint! I’ve chosen a photo that is quite challenging.

If you want to paint along with me, you can watch this video:

You can download the reference photo below:

You can also download a grayscale strip, which allows you to check the actual darkness or lightness of a specific area.

The photo is backlit, which turns the lady into almost a silhouette. Nevertheless, there are many small subtle pieces that are really fun to paint.

We can already identify a few pitfalls. We know how our brains often interfere with objective perception. When you look at a predominantly dark area with a slightly lighter part, the chances are high that we perceive that lighter part as very bright, even though it might not be that light.

Here, we have a dark portion of hair with a few lighter pieces. I’ve selected those light-looking parts using Photoshop. When you place those seemingly light pieces on a white background, you’ll notice that they are still relatively dark grays!

Let’s get started! We’ll first build up the sketch. It’s good to establish the major global shapes first. Once you have those in place, you can add more detail within them.

For creating those major shapes, a large flat brush comes in handy. It allows you to make swift and broad strokes.

To sketch, you can mix gray paint. After all, using pure black paint can be challenging to correct in subsequent layers.

Just begin, don’t be afraid of making mistakes, because you’ll definitely make some – I do too. But if you don’t start, nothing will happen. It’s better to have a canvas full of mistakes than an empty one. Mistakes can be valuable for finding solutions.

Don’t forget that you can use white paint to correct your mistakes!

Once you’ve roughly laid out the sketch, in this case, it’s helpful to quickly brush in the background. The background is quite light but certainly not pure white.

By the way, my sketch still contains quite a few errors, which I only noticed later. I tried to resolve those errors as best as possible at a later stage.

Next, it’s useful to look for the darkest tones. You can find them, for example, in the hair and on the shoulder. The boundary between the hair and shoulder is not visible, so in the painting, we simply merge them. After all, you can’t paint what you can’t see, but you can paint what you can see. Try to focus solely on the shapes of the tonal values and represent them as accurately as possible.

Then, proceed to slightly lighter values. In this photo, there aren’t many mid-tones due to the extreme lighting. Don’t worry about smooth transitions between the values yet. We need to establish the forms first; we can work on the transitions between values later.

Your painting might look strange at this point, but appearances can be deceiving. Once you’ve been over the whole canvas, it may seem chaotic, but if you squint your eyes, you’ll see your painting slightly blurred, and if everything went well, you’ll notice that the main balance from dark to light is already quite well established!

Once the paint is dry, you can make adjustments with your next layers. You can add more detail as much as you want. Create smoother transitions by adding “intermediate values” – in other words, a gray that connects one gray to another.

You can keep on experimenting until you’re satisfied with your work. Pay close attention to subtlety and be careful not to exaggerate the contrasts. Continuously review whether your light tones are not too bright and your dark tones are not too dark.

The advantage of exercises like this is that you are not distracted by color. It’s relatively easy to remix the correct tonal values using black and white and make adjustments accordingly.

If you practice working with tonal values regularly, you’ll find it much easier when you return to working with color.

Good luck and have fun!

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