Follow These Oil Painting Instructions to Improve Tonal Values in Your Art

This series of oil painting instructions takes you through one of the most important exercises for beginning or intermediate level artists: creating a series of tonal value studies in black and white.

Mastering tonal values is an essential skill. Without it, your oil painting will always be a hit or miss proposition.

On the other hand, once you have learned the technique of painting with a single color plus white, it will be much easier to learn more advanced color mixing.

So do yourself a favor: if none of the artists you study with have given you any oil painting instructions on monochromatic tonal value studies, then use these and do it yourself.

Remember, if you can paint whatever you want in black and white, you can learn to paint it in color as well!

Learn this skill and you will find it easier to harness all the other painting techniques out there.

In this exercise, you will paint a white symmetrical object (e.g. a white ball).

The following are my oil painting instructions, but you can modify them to work with soft pastel, acrylic, or almost any other artistic medium.

  • Find a pure white ball with a matte surface (not shiny). One economical way to do this is to spray paint a light bulb white.

    oil painting : instructions for value study

  • Sit the ball on a matte white surface (e.g. a piece of gessoed cardboard) with a medium toned background. Having the white object on the white surface makes it more challenging; later on, you can try a neutral colored surface.

  • Position a lamp with a less than 45 watt bulb shining on the ball at a 45 degree angle above and to the right (or left) of the ball.

  • Mix 5 to 6 values of paint using white and black (you can mix raw umber with the black to make it less blue). Start by mixing the very middle tone and then work toward the darkest and the lightest tones afterwards.

    oil painting : instructions for value study

  • Take your brush (use a sable brush for smooth transitions in values) and start to look for the line that divides the shadow and the light on the ball (the “terminator”). Squint often to locate the overall tonal relationship.

  • Look at the graph on this page that breaks down all the layers of values on the ball and on the surface on which it sits. Values show how the light travels.

    oil painting : instructioins for value study

    As an artist, you are painting the light, and the light shows the form. Where the surface receives more light, it is lighter. Where the surface turns away from the light, it gets dimmer. It is that simple. One of the essential oil painting instructions you can't do without!

  • Start with the “terminator” which you identified above and work through the shadowy side all the way to the reflected light. Once you are done with that, work from the terminator toward the bright side until you hit the highlight. Carefully model the gradual variations of the values and make sure there is no sudden jump between the adjacent values.

    So, how do you spot “jumps”? By squinting! It's the “secret” tool you can't do without!

Finished with that exercise? Here are some others you can try.

  • Paint the same ball sitting on a black surface and change the color of the background.

    Compare these exercises to learn more about the subtle value shifts that happen as you change an object's surroundings.

  • Paint a few eggs on a white plate.

    Eggs are interesting because they are oval and not perfectly round. You will find the basic rules you learned from the perfectly round ball still apply, but the oval shape changes things a bit. Pay close attention.

  • Paint lemons next to eggs

    Once you have mastered white balls and eggs, you can begin adding other shapes and colors. Adding a lemon to the eggs will give you good practice handling reflected color. Or you can combine almost any fruits that have a simple shape: lemons with oranges, limes with grapes, etc.

Use these lessons to sharpen your sense of tonal value!

You'll be amazed at the improvement you see in your ability to see and paint the subtle interactions of color.

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