If you want to paint powerful paintings, you need to know about getting the key to your painting. Many professional artists spend a lot of time working out a key to access the scene they want to paint. The key determines the mood and impact of each painting. If you are not sure how to find the key or even what this means then read on. There is also a video to demonstrate this concept easily.
What is the Key?
Maybe you've heard the term that painting has been painted in a high key or a low key. It sounds kind of like music, perhaps. A lot of the approaches to painting actually make sense when you compare them to music
High Key and Low Key
When we talk about high key in a painting, it's easier for me to actually show you what this means. A painting in a High Key really means is it's very light. There are only a few darks in the painting. All the colours are very well lit. It is light.
A painting in a low key looks much darker with the majority of the painting in darks. Where the majority of the colours fall within the dark range it is in a low key. It doesn't mean the painting is somber. In fact a low key painting can also show the effect of bright light.
I like the term key for a painting because it also associates the idea of unlocking something. So you figure out the key to your painting. When you look at a scene and look at a photo reference perhaps, and ask yourself what's the key to this painting? What you're really talking about is the lights and the darks. And we call those lights and darks values. What is the value of the painting is really the essence of a painting.
Values of Paintings
If you want to know what values mean, just think of black and white photography. All those darks and greys and whites in a photo falls within the idea of values. In black and white photographs you see very clearly what makes a great picture. So we want to get the values right first.
How to measure these values? Some very clever person came up with a scale of lights and darks called the Munsell Value Scale. By comparing the value on the scale to the paint you are mixing will tell you whether your colour has the right value for that part of the scene.
Tones and Values
Sometimes values are referred to as tones, and I don't particularly like that term. But if somebody is talking about tones, they're talking about values, the lightness or darkness of colour. Now, a high key painting is in the light range on the scale, probably within the first four values. Remember that most landscapes are only four values.
A low key painting will be probably somewhere around the dark range on the scale. There may be one or two lights, but generally we're in the dark range. I like to paint paintings in low key because three darks and a light emphasises the light.
I use the darks to emphasise light.
I'm going to show you a few master examples, looking at some of the Impressionists to give you a good idea of what key the painting was done in. And I'm going to try and break that down into the main values for you with some paint, and you'll be able to get a stronger idea of what makes a painting what it is. So unlock the key to your painting means to understand the values.
Let's have a look at a few examples and a practical demo where this idea may become a lot clearer to you.
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