High Value Colors Create Beautifully Subtle Designs (Playing with Color Series by Joen Wolfrom)Joen Wolfrom | July 6, 2012
December Water Reflection in Florida
As many of you mentioned in your comments and emails, value is a strong link to beautiful works of art. It is color’s most important silent partner. To clarify, value refers to how light or how dark a color is. The three major value ranges are (1) low value (dark colors), (2) high value (light colors), and (3) middle value (those colors that are neither dark nor light). When a work of art is made primarily from low-value colors, it is considered low-key. An artwork using mostly high-value colors is high-key. A design created with mostly middle-value hues is middle-key. Today’s post features high-valued colors and high-key images. High-value colors create beautifully subtle designs.
Truly, working in high-value is subtlety at its best. High-value colors are light and often appear visually weightless. They seem to float in space. High-value hues include the lightest pure colors. the majority of tints, the lightest shades of light pure colors, and light-colored tones. I have selected several high-key images for today’s post, so that you can see how high-value colors can be used effectively to make a subtle or delicate visual statement. I hope you will be inspired both by the evocative beauty that is created with light hues and by the freshness of soft, clear colors.
Value Contrast is Essential for a Design to Be Successful
Value contrast is essential when working with any design. Without the presence of value contrast, a design appears to be without direction or visual meaning. It is quite lost and often mundane when value contrast is lacking. Because creative energy and time are precious commodities for you, always take the time to assess how you want to use value in your designs during their planning stages.
When you are working only with high-value colors, your value-use options are fewer than if you were working with a wider value range. Realistically, your choices are one of the following: limited contrast, full high-value range contrast, or gradation. Think about how you want to use value most effectively in your design. Then match the type of value contrast that best suits your ideas.
Look at the water reflection at the top of this post. It appears more like an abstract painting than a still photograph. I am very drawn to this high-key image with its soft toned hues and limited value contrast. Even though this high-value image is subtle, value contrast is present. The colors move in value from very light to a darker part of the light-value range.
Ice Crystals on the Hebe
In this wintry garden scene, a Hebe in surprising winter bloom found its stems and blossoms encapsulated by ice one snowy day. The soft, high-value hues seem to present a sense of fragility. The value contrast is very limited, but it does exist. If all of the colors were the same value, everything would merge together in one big blob. This image shows us that even when limited value contrast is present, our eyes can interpret the visual clues within the design. This is a high-key image.
A Subtle Northumberland Sunrise
In this Northumberland early morning autumn sunrise, all of the hues are in high value. Within this high-value range, there are definite value changes. The luminous sun and the lustrous band of light in the water are the lightest in value. Some of the water and clouds closest to the horizon line appear darker than most other hues. The lightness of the sky and water colors promote a feeling of delicacy and quiet beauty. It sets the stage for an uplifting day. Again, this image is high-key.
Sunrise in the Smoky Mountains
Early morning sunrises often are great examples of the beauty that can be created when using a high-value color range. In this scene, the foreground looks relatively dark because the rest of the hues are so light. However, if the foreground hues were set next to a middle-value color, we would see quite quickly how light they really are. There are very subtle differences in the values of the background mountains. Even though the differences are slight, our minds’ eyes understand this scene completely. If there were no value differences, then our eyes would have difficulty interpreting what is before us.
The close high-value steps in this image gives a sense of quiet peacefulness. There is a spiritual beauty to those works of art that quietly tell their stories in high value.
Value Contrast through Gradation
One of my favorite ways to create contrast with high-value hues is through value gradation. Value gradation is simply moving the value of a color very gradually from light to darker or from dark to lighter. Within the high-value range, you are limited by the fact that you stay within this range. The full high-value range usually will give you enough steps to create beautiful gradations. Below you will see two flower images that use gradation to create contrast. Notice that they use gradation in subtly different ways. The dahlia uses its entire blossom to create the gradation while the rose uses each individual petal to create its full gradation range. I’m curious as to which you prefer.
This dahlia blossom wonderfully illustrates the use of value gradation in a very limited range. The colors move from a blush white to a delicate light pink. There’s not much difference between the lightest and darkest of the hues, yet this simple gradation attracts our attention. Notice that the gradation moves the values from the lightest area at the blossom’s top center to the darkest petals at the bottom. In other words, the gradation moves strategically as a whole. This gives a sense of elegant sophistication to the design.
A Rose in High-value Gradation
This rose illustrates another example of high-value gradation in limited steps. Here each petal is gently gradated from a blush white to a soft pink. It give a subtly different effect than the dahlia’s overall gradation. Neither method is more “right” than the other. They are both beautiful, but because they are done differently, they create different visual effects.
When you are dreaming about your next design, consider using value gradation, as it’s both beautiful and fun to do. You will find some designs will respond very well to gradation while other designs do not. If you have a design that seems to fight your desire to create value gradation, use a different way to bring value contrast to your design.
The Plight of No Contrast
If everything looks too similar in value, there is a problem. You must find a way to add some value contrast. If you don’t, your design will be disappointing, as it will be difficult to see the different elements. The two images shown below may give you some insight as to what happens when values are too close or too much the same. The first image does have very limited value change, so it’s passable. However, it could be improved with a bit more value contrast. The last image is troublesome at best. It’s totally lacking in value contrast, so it’s design is difficult to discern. It would be so disappointing if done as an artwork without a change in value.
Death Valley Morning
As you can see, this Death Valley scene is in high-key. The values are very close. The darkest and lightest hues within this limited range are what saves this image from obscurity. If the coppery peak and knoll in the foreground blended into the background, this image would not work at all. If I were to do this scene in fabric, I would increase the contrast here and there to give the scene a bit more life. What would you do? Where would you lighten it and/or darken it?
Too Much Subtlety Goes Nowhere
Although you can see the bare lines in this image, the values are much too close together. It’s difficult to discern what this image is about. If the viewer has to guess at the design, the design is unsuccessful. I love subtlety and I really like using a subtle value range, but this is an excellent example of poor use of value. Perhaps a photographer could revive this image in Photoshop (I still haven’t tackled that program), but if you are an artist in any other medium, fix the problem before the design gets too far along.
A Miracle Worker—-The Value Finder
In this post you have seen examples of images with different value-contrast options and examples of images with little or no contrast. If you have difficulty figuring out value contrast in your design, don’t feel alone. It’s an important design element that can challenge all of us at one time or another. The best tool around to help you with value is a value finder . It can keep you out of lots of trouble. A value finder is an inexpensive tool that can be found in art-supply stores. Alternatively, if you happen to have my 3-in-1 Color Tool, you’ll find 2 value finders included (a green one and a red one).
If you look through the value finder at your fabrics or at your artwork, you will find the colors disappear. They are replaced by gray-tone hues. These gray tones will show you the lightness and darkness of the colors. If you look through the value finder and see that every hue looks the same, then you know that every color is the same value, whether you want it to be or not.
If you want to see if a value gradation is complete or is moving from light to dark, look at your range through the value finder. If the colors move in a light to dark/dark to light order, you will see this. If you have a value gap or two colors too close together, it will show it. If you have a group of colors that you want to have all of the same value (as in 10 different Fabric A fabrics), you can quickly look through the value finder to see if they are the same value. When you look through a value finder, it’s very easy to see whether a color (e.g. fabric) is misplaced, as it sticks out like a sore thumb. A value finder is a handy little tool that can keep your design’s value on track. Once you get the hang of value, you may not need to use the value finder except for tricky little value mysteries.
Another Modern Day Value Helper
Most of us have cell phones these days. If you switch your cell phone’s camera to black/white and take a picture of your design (or your fabrics), you should be able to see if you have value contrast in your design. If your image looks mushy or you can’t see your design clearly, then that’s a clue that value contrast is not working and changes need to be made. Actually, taking a black/white photo should be quite revealing as to other aspects of your design too.
Working in Your Medium
I hope you see how wonderful designs can be when they incorporate both value contrast and high-value colors. When you are working on a design, make certain you take a look at your work frequently from a distance. By looking at your work from a distance (8-10 feet), you can better see if your design is evolving as you had planned. Most of all, you can check out how effectively your design’s value contrast is working.
Are any of your past designs in high key? If so, did they turn out successfully? If they were not successful, was it because the values were too similar? If you have not created any high-key designs, figure out why this is so. If you are a quilter, do you have many high-value fabrics in your stash? If not, seriously consider expanding your range (aka buying more light-value fabrics).
Start collecting high-key images (photos, cards, advertisements, etc). that you really like. Think about what you might like to do in the near future that uses high-value colors.
If you have the time and inclination, create something fun, such as a scene, an abstract design, a non-objective artwork, or something surreal, using the high-value range. This can be a simple cut and paste fabric mock-up, a colored-pencil drawing, or a quick painting. Try to make several high-key “play” pieces in the next few weeks just to get yourself used to working in high-key. These pieces should all be small.
If you would like to do so, after finishing your design, take a photo of your image and send it to me via email. I’d love to see what you’ve created in high key.
And the Winner Is:
Thank you for responding to my inquiry about what is probably missing when a design is not successful. Everyone said value, so it’s obviously no secret. The random winner of the question is Michele Kennedy. Michele, as soon as you send me your postal address, I will send you a copy of my newest book Adventures in Design. Thank you all for taking part in this little guessing game.
See you back here in a couple of weeks.
Text, illustrations, and photography copyright © Joen Wolfrom The copyright of each artwork shown remains with its creator.
Joen is a color enthusiast who teaches and lectures on color. She has written three color books: Color Play, Visual Coloring, and The Magical Effects of Color. Her Studio Color Wheel is used to illustrate color concepts in many of these blog posts. She is also the designer of the 3-in-1 Color Tool. Her new book Adventures in Designis now available. Joen’s newest design tool, the Magic Design-Ratio Tool is also available. All books and products are published by C & T Publishing.