OF late years the English term “values” has entirely replaced the Italian “chiaroscuro” by which painters were long wont to describe the light and shade of a picture as apart from its color. The change is certainly a good one.
Values are a pure convention, because they are built upon the assumption that nature is monochromatic. They are however, a most important convention one that is practically indispensable to a painterfor it is upon sound values that pictures depend for their solidity and their convincing power. Good painting, after all, is a matter of analysis and synthesis; and we painters are so used to picking nature to pieces, studying her in detail, considering the undertones by themselves, for instance, while we hold the overtones in abeyance, that we find no difficulty in separating the chiaroscuro from the color, and temporarily assuming a color-blindness if we have it not.
But values are a convention in still another sense. Our ability to counterfeit nature in a picture depends upon a palette made up of a certain number of dead pigments, whose scale of light and shade is ludicrously inadequate when compared with that of nature. Limited thus on the material side, the best we can do is to translate the infinite value-scale of nature into our sadly finite scale of pigments, and endeavor, by most careful balance, to adjust our means to our ends. This would be practically impossible were it not for the kindly help we receive from the human imagination, which is ever ready to accept a mere hint and build upon it a whole world; to fill in all discrepancies; and, given a few scratches of pen or pencil, to construct therefrom a complete representation of nature. How peculiarly human is this mental attitude is proved by the fact that no animal is ever known to recognize the most realistic painting as anything more than simple paint and canvas.
Contenting ourselves, however, with our own small value-scale, as we needs must, and assuming it to be adequate, the most important thing to consider is the value-key of our picture. Assuming the whole scale of values from the deepest black to the purest white to be represented by the number 100, the question arises as to what proportion of this number we shall use in the particular work which we are proposing to execute. In this matter the golden rule is reserve. We lose rather than gain in power by forcing the note, and a picture in which the whole scale from black to white should be employed would be absolutely without atmosphere, and without charm. It would indeed be a crudity and a horror, from which we would flee with hands on high. The whole beauty of a canvas depends often on the wisdom with which we make this choice of keywhether our picture is pitched in the upper, the middle, or the lower register, and whether we use a limited or an extended scale.
It is evident, of course, that we could attentuate our scale to the vanishing point, so that a breath would almost blow the picture from the canvas; just as by going to the other extreme we should fatally brutalize the work.
But within the limits of, say, the number ten and the number ninety of the scale, there exist a dozen or more keys of value, any one of which we are at liberty to select. It is equally evident that a picture painted in any one of these keys would be true to nature, if the relative values within the scale were carefully noted and adhered to. But in every case there would be one of those keys which would have suited the mood of that particular picture better than any other, and it is in the intuitive selection of just the right key that the true artist most frequently shows his power. As a rule, it may be said that the upper middle range will be found best to suit the great majority of pictures, but there are motives whose brilliancy calls out for the highest attainable key of light, and others whose brooding mystery must hide itself in the shadowy gloom of the lower register. Of equal importance with this question of altitude in the register is that of the numerical scalewhether to use ten, twenty, fifty, or seventy of the possible 100 points in the full scale. This will depend largely upon the effect to be produced, whether the message we have to convey is one of dramatic power, of brilliancy, or of tender and poetic charm. It will depend also considerably upon the character of the work and its ultimate destination. In a mural decoration, for instance, the demand for a restricted scale of values is absolutely mandatory, because the first consideration in a work of this character is that the observer must always remain conscious (or subconsciously conscious) of the flat surface of the wall. f this plane were destroyed, the architectural unity would sufferthe sense of the supporting power and strength of the wall being gone. In an easel picture it is just the contrary; there we desire to annihilate the flat surface of the canvas, to produce the illusion of atmosphere and to convey the impression that it would be possible to step over the border of the frame and out into the fields beyond. In this case therefore the scale of values must be generous enough to convey the impression of solidity and reality, while being held sufficiently in hand to obviate the danger of crudity.
As this whole question of values is a matter of translation, and of delicate adjustment inside of fixed conventional limits, there is practically no effect in nature that cannot at least be suggested by a, wise and skilful use of pigments. Take, for instance, the familiar effect where the sun, high in the heavens, is reflected in a brilliant pathway of scintillating light across the surface of the sea. In this case it is evident that the actual color-scale of nature is a thousand times more powerful than that of the artist’s palette; yet by a careful selection of the register, and a wise adjustment of the scale, it is quite possible not only to render the illusion of this radiant scene, but to do this without exhausting our limited value-scale. In fact, in this, and in all similar effects in which radiation of light is the principal motive of the picture, it is of the utmost importance to keep well within the limits of the scale, in order that even the deepest shadows shall remain luminous and palpitant. Nature never exhausts her value-scale. Even in the most violent effects, she always holds plenty in reserve. And, so far as is possible with our limited scale, we should do the same.
This, of course, does not mean that we should paint a gray-day landscape in a key so low that we could give its full force to a burst of sunlight that might suddenly strike across the scene. (If the sunlight is to be included, it should have been conceived as part of the picture in the beginning, and so arranged for.) But it does mean that we should always be able to go a little higher on the high note or a little lower on the low note if it is desirable to do so.
Having decided upon the scale and the register, the next most important thing is so to visualize our subject that we shall be able to group our values in large and simple masses. See big! Grab the essential, and leave the little things for any foolish person who chooses to gather them up. To tell the truth, detail is so blatant, so insistent, that it takes years of hard training to see beyond it,to appreciate the essential bigness of things. This is particularly true of out-door nature. The sun is a great leveller. It flattens all masses, the lights as well as the shadows. An outdoor picture-motive is complicated indeed if it can-not be divided into four or five dominant values. If these are understood, and painted with sympathetic truth, it is astonishing how little detail it requires to complete the picturethe trunk of a tree, a few scattered leaves, the curve of a road, and the trick is turned. Always leave something to the imagination of the beholder. A picture is often complete long before you suspect it.
There is probably no better way of training the eye to simplicity of vision, than studying moonlight, for – in moonlight effects, the broad masses alone are visible, and the shadows lie all over the picture in one big soft value.
The lights are distributed in two or three values at most, and nowhere is there any detail. Try to see your daylight effects in the same way, and you will come far nearer the truth than you might think.
Personally, I am inclined to hold values to be the most important quality in a pictureand this in spite of the fact that the work must depend for its charm upon the other qualities of color, design, and refraction. But a picture that is good in all these respects being weak and unsound in values, will nevertheless be a poor picture. Values might be compared to the skeleton in a human figure, which depends for its beauty upon the exquisite curves of the rounded limbs, the silken sheen of .the hair, and the color of eyes and lips and blushing cheeks. Remove the skeleton, and the whole fabric of beauty falls to earth a shapeless mass. Moreover, values are one of the few things in art that can be learned by almost any one who is gifted with ordinary eyesight; and for that particular reason they should engage the earnest attention of every serious student. One who has thoroughly mastered them has gone a long way on the road to success in painting.
Of course, all that has here been said refers only to the art of the past and of the present, for it is by no means certain that the intellectual and spiritual conditions which now bind us will endure forever. When I try to draw aside the veil, and peer into the mists of the future, I seem to see another art, less material, more akin to the pure spirit of music; an art stripped of all that is gross and material; an art in which abstract beauty alone shall rule. In this new art values may very possibly be unnecessary, and all will be stated in terms of beautiful color.
This is not yet however; and any art which is to endure must be true to the spirit of its own age.