How To Judge A Picture – Values

We now come to the consideration of another feature of painting, intimately connected with light and shade, color, and aerial perspective, and vitally important to every picture, be it in high colors, in monotone, or simply in black and white; namely, values. Definitions of the term vary in meaning because value signifies not one, but several things, as I shall endeavor to explain to you.

The word as understood by Couture, Fromentin and others, means, in brief, the quantity of light or dark contained in a tone. Let me begin illustration at once. In an etching the unit of value is the white paper, and the darks hold a relation to it in proportion to their intensity, the black masses having more value than the gray masses, the gray masses more value than the faintly-indicated lines. A pen-and-ink drawing of a landscape, if true to nature, will show more value in the foreground than in the sky, more value in a black elm than in a white birch. In color the unit of value is that hue which contains the greatest luminosity, or, in other words, that hue which approaches the nearest to pure white light. A lemon in a basket of fruit, for instance, will have more value than an orange, an orange more value than a bunch of purple grapes. Dark or shadow masses in black and white have a value as they recede from light ; colors have a value as they approach light. The one is just the reverse of the other. You will understand this view of values then comprehends the variance in the light-absorbing powers of different tones, and the difference in pitch between one tone or color and an-other tone or color is a difference of value.

But the modern artists do not consider this the precise, the only meaning of value, especially in regard to color. To them it has a more subtile significance in the difference of pitch, not between a green and a red, a yellow and a blue, a black and a white, but between a yellow and a yellow, a red and a red, a white and a white. If a white handkerchief be thrown on the snow there will be some difference, slight though it may be, between the two whites. One will have more value than the other, and only by the emphasis of the difference could the effect be drawn or painted. Take, for example, a man dressed in white flannel, seated in a chair with his legs crossed one over the other so that one fold of the white flannel falls upon another fold. Here is the identical cloth—the same local tone; but the slight variation in the position of the folds creates a difference in the pitch, a difference in value. This may be seen again in the ” First Communion ” pictures of Parisian artists, where the white dresses of young girls are relieved one against the other; in flower-pieces, where bunches of roses or daisies are painted in masses ; in interiors, where articles of furniture similar in coloring are distinguished by slight differences in pitch; in portraits, where, for instance, a brown dress is thrown against a brown curtain background. What may be the cause of the difference of pitch between like-colored objects such as I have indicated would be hard to say; but I think it not so much the intervening atmosphere, of which I have next to speak, as the varying quantity of light received by the objects owing to their different positions.

Suppose yourself standing in the nave of a Gothic cathedral looking down the row of columns toward the transept. There would be, comparatively speaking, no difference in the coloring of the stone composing the different columns, and yet the column nearest you would have more value and appear stronger than the second one, the second would have more value than the third and so on. Suppose a line of policemen marching up the street; behind them fifteen yards comes another line; fifteen yards further back comes a third line. Their uniform—their coloring—is the same, but not their values. The first line is more intense in coloring than the second, the second more intense than the third. A field of corn in the shock, a row of maple-trees along a road, a block of brown-stone houses will illustrate similar effects. Eliminate the coloring principle by comparing one white birch with another white birch twenty yards behind it, or the snow on one hill-top with the snow on another hill-top a hundred yards behind it, and again the difference in value will appear. This difference is caused by the intervening atmosphere; in fact, it is nothing but aerial perspective ; but it makes light and color appear of a different pitch, and for that reason it is regarded by artists as a difference in value.

There is still another meaning attached to value which is recognized by some artists and denied by others. I refer to values as seen in the relations of light and shade. Suppose yourself once more in the Gothic cathedral looking down the columns. A shaft of sunlight from the transept strikes across a single column of the line. Immediately there is a sharp difference in value, not due to atmosphere, but to the contrast of light with shade. This will be apparent again if we suppose two cows of identical color in a pasture, the one under the shade of a tree, the other in sunlight ; or if we take a green meadow on a cloudy day with a rift of sunlight falling across the middle distance.

In both cases the difference is one between light and shade, but it is also a difference of value. Now if you look closely at the full face of a friend, a young lady, for instance, you will see the brightest-looking flesh on the nose, chin, and forehead. The cheeks are slightly duller, and around the throat and sides of the neck the shadows deepen the flesh-notes. Compare the nose with the cheek, the cheek with the side of the neck, and you will have three grades of values. Values will likewise appear in the lights and shades of an outstretched hand, the folds of a dress, the reflection of a red parasol over one’s head. For though the cause is certainly little more than the relations of light and shade, yet the effect is nevertheless a difference in pitch or value. To be sure, you will find many artists not recognizing this last meaning in the sense of value, and then again you will find many others who do. At any rate it is worthy of mention here, and to be on the safe side you would better consider value as the quantity of light or dark contained in a tone arising from any cause whatever.

The value of a tone is estimated by its worth or importance as related to other tones, being either high or low, weak or strong. When tones and shades are placed in a picture precisely as they appear in nature the picture is technically spoken of as ” good ” or ” true in values; when the artist fails to produce them as they naturally appear-fails to produce just relationships—his picture is called ” weak ” in values; and when he chooses to exaggerate them for purposes of artistic effect they are sometimes spoken of as ” strong” in values. Of the latter class the pictures of Rembrandt and Goya, and the eastern pieces of Decamps, are good examples, though you will find writers of high rank, like Hamerton and Fromentin, saying that Goya and Decamps knew nothing whatever of values. As for the second class, the trumpet-blowing angels of Fra Angelico, with their pink-and-white pathetic faces, are instances of where values are “weak,” and in the Egyptian wall-paintings they are quite unknown. Of pictures “true ” or ” good ” in values an illustration may be taken from almost any good modern painter, say, Carolus-Duran, John Sargent, W. M. Chase, Carroll Beckwith, or George Inness.

Just precisely how you may decide if the values of a picture be good or bad, weak or strong, I can but imperfectly tell you. I have tried to point out to you what they are, and for the rest you must look at pictures and study Nature. Possibly you think you know Nature, but you will never know how deep as a well and wide as a barn-door is your ignorance of her until you study art. Generally speaking, false values in a picture may be noted not only by the lack of a difference in the pitch of similar colors, but by the absence of proper gradation and atmospheric effect, and by the unreal appearance of the whole piece. Trees at varying distances will appear of the same value; people in a throng on the street will all be of equal prominence; the flesh-color on the throat will be as high-keyed as that on the chin ; the policemen in the distance will be small replicas of the ones in the foreground. Every thing will be flat, the planes of the picture will be lost, the color gradations destroyed.

If you will pay a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and make a study of Lerolle’s picture of the ” Organ Rehearsal,” you will find it a very good example of values well maintained. Likely some friend will call your attention to the manner in which the figures ” stand out ” of the canvas, and you will perhaps fancy you see that effect, but Lerolle never painted the picture with that end in view. He, and all other good artists, as Alfred Stevens has observed, strive to make their people ” stand in.” Notice now how well Lerolle has succeeded in doing this by giving each tone and color its proper emphasis. Notice the people in the foreground, how strong they are ; compare their flesh and clothes with the flesh and clothes of the girl singing, and then compare the girl’s clothes with the gallery of the church beyond and notice the difference in the values.

Notice also the atmospheric effect in the church, the perfect keeping of the accessory figures and furniture, and while you are looking at the picture be sure to notice that which is only suggested, namely, the vast space of the empty church to the side and in front of the railing. Again, if you will look at any of the landscapes of Corot, Rousseau, or Diaz, and will try to find something more in them than the ” splash ” and quantity of paint, you will see that the trees have not only a difference of local color in themselves, but also in relation to the other trees; that the houses, the clouds, and the hills hold a similar relation to each other ; and that in the water, the grass, the roads, the small figures in the landscape there is a proper recognition of their different values.

You do not like them ? and you do like this picture of Verboeckhoven, where the sheep, preceded by a shepherd, are supposed to be going out of a barn ? Well, that is quite natural. It is one of the very worst pictures extant. Look at it again; those sheep will never leave the barn, for they have no more the power of motion than the wooden sheep in the Noah’s ark of our youth. They are all stuck together because they are all of the same value. They are not thicker than a knife-blade, and even with all their weakness and thinness if they should move they would like enough tumble the barn over, for it is not made of wood, but of pasteboard. The shepherd is not Inside of the barn, as might be supposed, but is pinned like a paper doll against the blue sky seen through the door-way. If you look out through this door-way you will see that the “artist” in-tended the picture for a sunlight scene, but the blue sky is as false in value when contrasted with the barn interior as the barn interior is when contrasted with the man and the sheep. The man, the sheep, the floor, the sky—in fact, the whole thing is cut out of one flat piece, put together like a stage-setting, and gaudily painted, for what reason, more than the making of money I cannot tell. It is unreal and untrue, resembling nothing seen by mortal eye in the heavens above, the earth beneath, or the waters under the earth. I cannot understand how such painters as Verboeckhoven and Meyer von Bremen ever pushed their false and inane productions on the art community as good work. And it is further incomprehensible to me why it is that now, when these men are known to be unworthy as painters, their work is still considered of that kind without a sample of which no gentleman’s gallery would be complete. The first man knew nothing of painting ; the second knew a trifle more than the first about the mechanical part of his art, but outbalanced any little virtue he possessed in that line by a whimpering sentimentality in his subjects which makes children to laugh, women to cry, and men to grow profane with disgust.

From the sheep picture, devoid of values, turn to one where they are well maintained—this library interior of Meissonier.* Mark the in-crease of the shadow values as they fall away from the high light coming in at the window. Note the increase of the color notes as they approach that high light. Note again the difference in the pitch of similar colors as shown in velvets, books, tables, carvings, panelings. Yes, Meissonier is quite a master. To be sure, he has his failings, but they are not usually of a technical nature. He knows the language of art pretty thoroughly, but he does not always know what to say with it—regarding which something will be said further on.