Monday, February 28, 2011

Low-Key vs. High-Key Paintings

In order to create drama and a strong value structure for a painting, artists often choose to work in either a high or low "key" in which to compose their work.  Thinking about a painting or drawing in this way helps to simplify value choices, emphasize areas of focus, and create a pleasing interaction of shapes when the painting is considered abstractly.

In a high-key painting, the majority of values are in the lighter than middle gray.  Then, dark accents are used to lead the eye around the important areas of the painting. High-key paintings feel light and airy.

The Tiepolo watercolor above is a great example of a high-key composition.  This style tends to mimic daylight by brightening the shadow side of the form and only darkening the areas that even strong ambient light has difficulty penetrating. 

In a low-key painting, the majority of values are darker then middle gray.  Light values are saved as accents to highlight the important elements in the painting. Low-key paintings feel mysterious and contemplative.


In this Rembrandt painting the elderly man's white hair face and hands command our attention since they stand out so dramatically from the darkened background.  It appears that the man is lit by a torch or from a distant window opened up to reveal the sun low in the sky.  The painting is composed almost like a yin-yang.  The black keys stand out against the lit ground at bottom right adding a secondary focus to the work.  Also notice that the shadow is simplified by jointing the dark side of the man's shirt with the cast shadow extending into the background. 

Interestingly, the color scheme for both works is essentially identical.  They are both rendered monochromatically in a gradient of burnt sienna or brown. The choice of key brings a distinctly different "feel" to each painting.

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Atmopheric Perspective

On a sunny clear day in Manhattan you can see the effects that the air has on the value contrasts of the distant buildings.
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Through rain and fog this effect is made more apparent and the graying effect happens at a shorter distances. Droplets in the air cause light from the objects to refract and lose any distinct edge. Notice that foreground shadows are dark creating a balance of light and dark throughout the image.

As we zoom in you can see the objects become gray and diffuse.

At this depth the values hardly get darker than a 50% gray.

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Chiaroscuro from Observation

 I took a walk today in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn.  I couldn't help taking a photo of this decorative cement sphere that guards the top of the steps. It shows nearly textbook chiaroscuro. Also, if you look close enough you can find the Empire State Building in the background.

 On the brightness of the reflected son has overloaded my wimpy cellphone camera and therefore bleached out the light side of the value range (my eyes could). A core shadow is hardly visible because the dark side is illuminated by the ambient light from the clear blue sky. Also, there is no visible highlight since the surface isn't smooth enough to reflect an image of the light source.

You can see that the texture of the surface is most apparent between the lightest lights at left and the shadow at right. This is so for 2 reasons: First, at nearly tangent angles of light, the surface bumps are casting their own tiny shadows.  Secondly, the mid-tone gives us the most detailed look at the surface since less light would limit the amount of light reaching our eyes and extreme daylight can bleach the light side.

At bottom right you can see a little bit of reflected light bouncing into the underside of the ball. Also, since there is so much ambient light, which lightens up the cast shadow, you can see that the occlusion shadow on the ball becomes emphasized. It looks like a black line around the edge of the ball.

Visit my Chiaroscuro Lesson to find out more details about drawing spheres.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Megacerops with a Mechanical Pencil

I drew this Megacerops (Paleo-Rhino) from a life size sculpture at the American Museum of Natural History in New York that houses the extinct creature's fossilized bones. I thought this was a great example of drawing technique using only a mechanical pencil and a kneaded eraser.  In the detail below you can see how each line of shading wraps around the form and the thicker outer lines work to differentiate the major masses that make up the beast.

This drawing started lightly with the biggest forms being outlined first to orient myself. I darkened the important edge lines as a went and understood that the foreground edges and the lines underneath his jaw would get the most weight.  This and a number of other tricks resulted in a successful drawing.

Here's the same sculpture being carved by a sculptor that I found in a quick Google search.
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Monday, February 14, 2011

New Pencil Drawing Lesson

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

2D to 3D: A Lesson in Chiaroscuro

I've broken basic chiaroscuro into 8 steps (+1 step for that "colorized" look).  Toward the end of this lesson I try to connect this painting method with fundamental drawing techniques and how to make choices about appropriate line quality in a pencil or pen drawing. Click the link to below to take to the lesson page.

How to make a 2D surface into a 3D illusion
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