Dark Colors (Low-value Colors) Need Value Contrast (Playing with Color Series by Joen Wolfrom)Joen Wolfrom | August 9, 2012
Colors that are dark are considered low in value or low-valued. These colors are visually heavy. They weigh much more than those high-value colors that we discussed in the last post. Because low-value colors are visually heavy, we often see them placed at the bottom of many representational artworks, as if gravity has pull them downward. Of course, dark colors can be placed anywhere in your design; it’s not necessary to have them near the bottom region. When placed elsewhere, they often create a rather dramatic effect. Imagery that is primarily made up of dark colors is considered low key. The most important idea to remember when working in low key is to include value contrast.
Before elaborating further on value contrast, I want to stop a minute to tell you about my newest adventure that I am very excited about. Last winter I was asked by Craftsy.com to create an online color class for their website. Because of my rather hectic schedule this year, filming just took place last week. The class, Color Play for Quilters will be available in early September, 2012.
Here’s what I love about this online-class concept: Once you enroll in class, it’s yours for life, meaning you can view it 24/7 and as often as you wish. You own it. You can bookmark parts of any of the lessons you want to refer back to and you can go at whatever pace works for you. The “techie geeks” who created the Craftsy.com platform did a brilliant job of designing it. It allows you to communicate with me and other class participants. You can show your projects, quilts, etc. to other classmates and to me. I am excited about this opportunity to share with you some of the concepts I have learned over these past three decades. An online class such as this is perfect for our schedules and modern-day lifestyle. I hope you will join me in this new adventure. (Filming is not my favorite activity….I was quite nervous about it….but I am committed to the idea of online classes, so I need to tackle that camera….mind over matter!) I hope to “see” you in class!
Now back to value…..
The Richness of Low Value Hues with Limited Value Contrast
The most important key to working with low-value colors is to include some value contrast in your design. How much contrast depends on what your design is about and how much contrast you prefer. There should be enough contrast to be able to see what’s going on in the design. In this rain forest glimpse, the colors are quite dark. Fortunately, there are some lighter-value greens in the background that help our eyes define the trees. If all the colors were as dark as the evergreen trees, we wouldn’t be able to see the design. This photo is an example of limited value contrast. Although the value contrast is small, it’s enough for us to understand the visual story.
I have seen many quilts that are created with rich, dark colors, but lack value contrast. These designs can be understood 2-4 feet away, but they disappear farther back. Often, all you can see are dark blobs of nothingness when viewing from 10 feet away. It’s so disappointing when this happens. If dark hues are your cup of tea, you must take time to figure out how you are going to include value contrast.
Adding More Lightness to a Low-Value Design
In this sunset image, you can see that the value contrast is much lighter than in the rain forest picture. Imagine viewing this photo without any value contrast—no light sunset hues. This would make it difficult to see what’s going on in the photo.
Here’s the important thought regarding this image: The beauty in this photo is in the value contrast—-not the dark-value colors. The dark and light colors work together to create a visual partnership. The value contrast in this photo creates interest and visual clarity. The color changes in the light value hues increases the beauty, but would be of no consequence if there was no value contrast.
Images Disappear When Only Dark Colors are Present
Often when I judge a quilt show or jury an exhibit, there will be entries that are made entirely from low-value colors. It is difficult to see a design that has little or no value contrast. If our eyes cannot “read” the design immediately, then it’s not successful. In fact, it’s a major design flaw. This picture is a good example of an unsuccessful design. We really have to study it to see what’s going on because the values are almost all the same throughout the imagery. As a quilter, bunch your fabrics together, place them on a shelf or table, and then walk 10-12 feet away. Does everything look as if it’s the same value? If so, add fabrics that will give you enough contrast to understand the design immediately upon seeing it.
I’ve taken the same photo image and added considerably more contrast through exposure. As you can see, by doing so, the water becomes middle value (as do the back mountains) while the sky appears in high-value hues. The foreground and back hills are still in those deep, dark rich colors.
Reaching for More Contrast—It’s a Matter of Personal Preference
I’ve made another version of this image, so you can see how it looks by lighting up the colors even more. Which of these two images do you like better? The one with the hills and foreground much darker or this one? You can see how important contrast is by observing these three images. The choice between the latter two are a matter of value preference. Of the three images, this one has the most value contrast. The one with the least value contrast (the first one) is the least effective. Get a sense of how you prefer to work with contrast. Regardless of your preference, make certain you have enough contrast for the viewers’ eyes to understand your design without having to think.
In this night scene, there is enough light situated throughout the design surface to understand what this design is about. If the Space Needle had not been lit up, I’d be in big trouble with this image. All would be in darkness except for the bottom portion of the picture. The street and building lights provide strong value contrast. This photo illustrates how high and low value colors partner very well in night scenes.
Take a look at the last photo (below). Notice how the strong value contrast between light and dark create fantastic drama. Consider the ways you might want to work with low-value hues in your designs.
Things to Do
Look at your past work. Have you used low-value colors in your designs? If so, stand back and see if they work from a distance. If not, determine how you can have added value contrast to make the design easier to read. Look through books and magazines and study those designs (quilts, photos, paintings, etc.) that are in the low-value key. Analyze the designs and make a determination whether each design works or not. If the latter, figure out how the design could be improved.
If you have time and the inclination, create a small low-valued design. Decide how you are going to add value contrast—and figure out how much contrast you will need to make the design successful.
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.