The Power Of Middle Values

The Power of Middle Values

As an artist, I often get questions from people about their own drawings. One of the things I hear over and over again is, “How do I get my drawings to look more realistic?” This question is usually followed by an exasperated sigh, as if the budding artist is close to giving up.

This is a current commission I'm working on and you can see that the face is all rendered in monochromatic, only one pencil color.  I'm using Bark, Inktense, from Derwent.  

Conventional wisdom would tell you not to create a line for something that should be represented as a curve or an edge, opting to use shading to represent everything instead (even where you think there is a line). This is very good instruction for achieving more realistic drawings, as it will call your attention to shape, size, proportion, and relationships to negative space. These are all good things to be aware of.

But I think the most realistic drawings come when an artist develops the ability to see value changes and differences in the middle values. The average joe can usually tell the difference between the darkest values and the brightest values, but to go beyond that and start to make judgments in the middle values will bring your drawing to a whole new level.

I know what you’re thinking—Sure, John, sounds great. But how in the world do I learn how to look at middle values? I’m so glad you asked!

One way to do this is to begin using a technique from the old masters called the grisaille (pronounced GRIZ-EYE) method. (This has nothing to do with a grizzly bear, or its eye… though that would make an interesting drawing.) In the grisaille method, you render your entire drawing by reducing down to values. For example, if I am drawing a colored pencil portrait then I will first draw the entire drawing using 1 or 2 pencils colors. I will only use light pressure in the lightest areas. I will cover the entire face with the pencil and will not go on to until I cover the entire face.

Think about it in these 3 steps:

  1. Outline. Create a very soft (nearly invisible) outline of the proportions. The outline of the face, the edge of the hair line, the outline of the eyes, then nose and mouth.

  2. Go Dark. Next, gently increase the value of all the areas where you see shadows. For example the corners of the mouth, the corners of the eye, the underside edge of the nose.

  3. Make the Middle. Finally, with a very dark pencil and with the lightest touch you can possible make increase the value in areas that you consider the middle values. Here is where the magic will begin to happen. By “lightest touch possible” I mean that the only pressure you exert in nearly just the weight of the pencil itself and you are only controlling the direction of the tip! EXTREMELY light touch. Imagine that the paper is a pressurized bomb and if you press too hard it will blow up in your face. Ok, that was extreme. You get my point, right?