Friday, June 6, 2008


Mike Bailey ( has sent me his considered explanation of the difference between a "color painter" and a "value painter" It is beautifully explained by one of the best teachers around. I have his permission to share his thoughts with you. Mike has a current discussion on his blog regarding design which you should definitely check out as well!

"Topher brought this up under the following context: That the only way painters can delineate *volume* or *form* is by manipulating values. That is to use values as light and shadow would behave. Alex Powers is a Value painter. He establishes form using little color and a lot of value changes. He augments his work with some textural qualities, but the image is value based. Value painters (the most common among us) us extremes of value (dark vs light) to hold the eye in an interest center or focal point.

On the other hand, colorists, are not always interested in the idea of form or volume. Instead they are more interested in showing off color differences, (hue, temperature or intensity), WITHOUT showing value shifts . . . . .that is holding the values constant . . .no indication of light and shadow . . .just flat space with color, not value, shifts.

What Powers and Schink are saying is that in a "value painting" the value differences distract the eye from the more subtle color shifts, such as a slight temperature change in red, for example. If a significantly darker space was near that temperature shift, it would not appear as obvious because of the distraction of the value contrast.

This goes to the "order of seeing." Where we see value differences first, pattern or texture second and THEN color differences. Physiologically, our eyes are made that way. We don't have a choice in the matter.

So, color painters, or colorists, rely on subtle or no value changes in order to show of color variance in temperature or intensity or hue. Luminosity, where the appearance of light coming FROM an object or surface (versus illumination . . .where light is shining ON a surface) is painted by keeping values very close, no darks, no whites . . . .using pure color tints in the luminating area and surrounding that area with near neutrals. This is an intensity change, not a value change.

Skip Lawrence a few years back was on a chase to paint "color as value" where he would use the natural value of colors as they came from the tube to show value changes and ignored the actual hue. for example, in a light and shadow situation, he might use a peach tint for light and a deep purple in shadow. The value difference was the key in his paintings. Where there were subtle color shifts in his paintings such as a change from cool red to warm red, it could not hold the eye . . .and was often missed by the viewer because of the value difference between the peach and purple.

Can painters do what Myrna did in her portrait? Absolutely. She used color as value in her peice and shows off big differences in warm hue versus cool hue . . .but the value structure is still intact. So, Alex Powers would (probably) say that hers was a value painting with colored textural elements exciting the surface.

The key in what Topher was talking about was to decide between flat versus form."

Finally, a clear definition of "Value vs. Color" that finally gets it through my brain! Thank you, Mike. I have taken Mike's class "Watercolor Beyond the Obvious" 3 times (see "series" on my website) and I remember this discussion, but I don't think I truly understood it until now. I think color may be the most complex subject in art. So great to realize that learning never stops and there is so much more to explore! I guess I am a colorful value painter. Very few of my paintings are truly "flattened". I have posted one of my exceptions. At the time I thought I was doing "color as value" and working with pure hues but now I see that although the color has value, the value is not used to define the form in a 3 dimensional way so it is a color painting with pattern as texture. My previous post of Preston Metcalf was more of a true example of color as value.


Margaret Stermer-Cox said...

Hi Myrna -- Interesting posting and wonderful painting! I think you're right saying that color is a complex subject. I enjoy your blog tremendously. Thank you.

Jane w Ferguson said...

Following our discussion on Thursday Myrna.That was very helpful.I have taken 4 of Mikes classes and think I have the color thing clear in my head but it seems to need continual clarification. Thanks .
I am still in total awe of your color portrait painting.

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