Over the last couple weeks the students in my on line class drawing practice class have been working with values—learning to see value shapes, to judge and compare one value to another.
Understanding values, the relative lightness and darkness from one area of a subject to another, and the ability to translate those values to the page either in color or in monochromatic washes of ink, is one of the important steps in understanding how to render a subject realistically in two dimensions.
I have them for such a little time that it’s sometimes difficult to impress the importance of this upon them.
There is awkwardness, many are using Niji waterbrushes and wondering if they need to change to natural hair watercolor brushes.
Like anything, the Niji waterbrush takes practice. And if you’re hard on them like I am, their tips get worn and make control more difficult, but it can still be done. (Today’s sketches were done with such a brush.)
What really matters is looking at values, and then describing those values on paper. If you have more control with a fine tipped watercolor brush, by all means use it. But realize, regardless of the tool, practice is going to get you there.
Sketches in Today’s Post
In the sketches of this post I’ve used two vintage photos, the Niji waterbrush, a Pentel DYE-based brush pen, a small daisy palette (paint wells in a circle with one central well), and a mechanical pencil.
I was finishing the year off following two cataract operations which left me with lots of visual side effects and vision issues. One issue was a limited amount of working time each day. I made these sketches to explore alternate ways of seeing value, besides squinting (as that no longer works for my artificial lenses and my other eye impediments).
I began with a bare-minimum sketch that was simply an outline of the head and two circles where the eye sockets might be located. Then I switched over to working only with the brush and ink washes; ignoring the minimal lines as needed.
I like to work in various areas around a sketch like this, laying in a wash, then working elsewhere while the previous wash dries. Then returning to deepen a value as needed when the paper is dry. This keeps the original value layers intact and minimizes the wear and tear on the paper. (Though Strathmore 400 series Mixed Media Toned paper is a sturdy paper, sized for wet media, which takes a lot of work and reworking.)
In these sketches I was also working at what is my new default scale, with my new artificial lenses. This is something I’ve been talking with my students about lately. I believe we all have a scale that we default to which allows us to include the details we are drawn to. A comfort scale as it were. Even 18 months in I’m still working with recalibrating my eyes, but I think these are pretty close.
What You Might Experiment With
If you want to work on understanding values more I recommend that you work monochromatically at first, in black and white, or perhaps in Sepia and white. The white would be the white of your paper. Both black or sepia ink will allow you to get rich darks, but also dilute a range of values that will allow you to model the three dimensional nature of your subject.
Alternately you can work on toned paper as I have done today. I also encourage my students to progress to working with complementary pairs to get warm and cool neutrals, but that’s for another day.
For drawings like these you have to decide if you’re going to add in white on a toned paper. That would mean your toned paper is going to be your middle value. Or are you going to leave out white, and use only the paper value as your lightest value?
I did the latter for these two images because I didn’t want to add any white paint (it was in another room) and because I wanted my highlights to be subdued. Starting with the intention of using the color of the paper as your white you can then build up your value system from that paper value, reserving everything you want to be “white” or light, just as you would do if using white paper. Because your lightest values will actually be at what is normally considered a mid-value your whole sketch will be skewed darker.
I used a Pentel Brush Pen with dye-based ink in a squeezy barrel, because it was at hand. I squeezed out a puddle of ink in my central palette well, and then I made 4 other puddles in different wells, each a different strength in value so I had a range from light to dark.
Next I started to apply those values, looking for large values shapes on the figure and when those washes were dry, adding smaller washes in areas of darker value, building up value. I’d like to say that I stuck to the four values I created when I started, but as I build values I often find it’s more important for me to layer a middle or darker value a couple times in an area as I see how the ink or paint responds to the paper.
If I’m working with opaque paints I tend to stick with the original values I set up at the start of my painting session.
If you prefer to work with bottled ink (which unlike the dye-based ink used here will be lightfast) you can do this exact exercise with acrylic ink that you dilute into puddles and glazes of color; you can also work with sumi ink. I’m sure there are inks cartoonists use that would be suitable for this practice, but you’ll have to ask your art supply store for recommendations, most such inks I’ve sampled have had strong odors.