Believe it or not, I have actually learned a few things over the years of creating art! It used to be that half way through a painting, I would complain to my husband, "I'm done! there is something wrong with this painting!!!" He would remind me, "You always say that. Keep painting, it'll get better." He would be right - most of the time anyway!
Artists in our painting group often ask me what more they need to do to a painting they are working on. Many times I see they have the same issue that I have when I am at the halfway point in a painting.
It usually boils down to an issue with the contrast and the value variations in their painting. Most often there just isn't enough contrast in the painting. Without contrast and value variation the painting will appear a bit flat. When this happens you will recognize that there is just something a bit 'off' in the painting, but maybe aren't quite sure what that something is.
Color is very important in painting, but can be part of the problem when evaluating contrast and value correctly. Colors often trick our eyes into thinking there is enough contrast when there really isn't. Your eyes are reading the color, not the contrast. Evaluating the contrast while ignoring the colors of your painting can be difficult to do, so I will go over this below.
Why is value/contrast just as important as color?
If you paint all mid-tones in your painting, it will appear flat. Don't get me wrong, mid-tones are important to a painting, but you need to add values from dark to light to give an illusion of depth and form. The use of contrast and values in your landscapes make them go back into the distance. It gives three-dimensional form to your subject matter. It will make an apple look like an apple instead of a flat red circle. Value can also create the very important focal point of your painting. Your eye is drawn to the drama of light against dark. If you paint all mid-tones in your painting, it will lack the drama and interest it needs.
Project Ideas and Tips:
Below I have some tips and project ideas to help you begin to see contrast and value variations in your paintings. As you train your eyes to see this, you will also start seeing more value variations in the subject you are painting. Learning to see will enable you to paint more contrast into you paintings.
Note #1: I do realize that there are some paintings that you will want to have a soft, subtle effect in the end result. These exercises will help with this type of painting, since you still need value change and variations even in this style of painting.
Note #2: Before critiquing the value/contrast issue in a painting, I suggest first checking the drawing and the composition. If there is an issue with those two areas, fix them first.