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Add Interest Using Dominant Value In Paintings

Round Hill Road by John Henry Twachtman
Round Hill Road by John Henry Twachtman

Value in painting

One thing that I have discovered is that most masterpieces have a clearly dominant value in painting. By ‘dominant value’ I mean a single value that takes up more than 50% of the painting. This dominant value can be any value; dark, light, or middle value – it does not matter which value it is, as long as you do have one dominant value. Take a look at some of your paintings in black and white (or shades of gray). Do you have equal amounts of each value? If so you may have a problem.

The foundation of most good artwork is their value or notan structure (notan is the dark/light value pattern in your painting, and is a very important topic that I have written a lot about in the Apprentice Program lessons). In many master paintings I have found that it is the middle value that is the dominant value. There is a reason for this that has to do with color saturation.

Dominant white/light

values in painting

One exception to this middle value ‘rule’ is high key paintings, like many impressionist paintings such as those by Benson, Twachtman, and some of Monet’s paintings. These works often have a dominant light value.

Round Hill Road by John Henry Twachtman
Round Hill Road by John Henry Twachtman

Dominant black/dark

values in painting

Another exception is nocturnes (paintings of scenes at night or late dusk), which have a dominant dark value. Whistler painted a lot of night scenes.

Nocturne In Black And Gold by James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Nocturne In Black And Gold by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Often there is a sub-dominant value as well. The subdominant value is the value that takes up the second most area in the painting. In these paintings, the third value (in a three-value structure) could be thought of as an ‘accent value. That is just a small patch to add interest to the painting, and keep the viewer’s eye moving around the picture surface.

Here is a tip if you have problems thinking about this. Try breaking up the space in the same proportions as the golden section. Use 60% for the middle value, 25% for the light or the dark, and 15% for the remaining light or dark value.

Dominant gray

A Day at Carmel Beach by Barry John Raybould
A Day at Carmel Beach by Barry John Raybould

In the painting “A Day at Carmel Beach”, you can see that the dominant value is gray, with a few accents of darks and lights.

To learn more about dominant values in painting

To learn more about notan and dominant value in painting, and why all great artists flatten their values, and design interesting negative shapes as well as positive shapes, see Notan lessons in our Virtual Art Academy® Apprentice Program.

Add Interest Using Dominant Value In Paintings

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