One absolutely key concept for any artist to master is the concept of value organisation. Negligence of this most important idea is often the downfall of the beginner art student. This concept lies at the very core of how we see and understand the world and a full control of it gifts the artist with a powerful ability to control the attention of the viewer. Students have a tendency to over-complicate their drawings in this respect, leading to images that are frustratingly difficult to read. Simplicity is key here, as we can see in this gorgeous drawing by John Singer Sargent, an absolute master of this quality and a most worthy source of learning for the student.
The human eye evolved to pick out small contrasts in nature. This helps us immensely in our everyday lives. However, it wreaks havoc on our ability to faithfully represent the simple values seen in nature. One of the ways this effects us is in the tendency for students to exaggerate small shifts at the cost of the large relationships. One of the most common symptoms of this tendency is known as ‘over-modelling’. As illustrated in image above, this occurs when halftones in the lights are allowed to become too dark in value. Encroaching on the darkness of the shadows, these halftones appear as changes in the local colour of the skin rather than subtle shifts in the form of the subject, which tends to give the drawing a feeling of being dirty rather than the feeling of an object being struck by light from a certain source.
Another symptom of this tendency to overcook small contrasts lies in how beginners handle the reflected light in the subject. In this extremely common error students place reflected lights far too bright, assigning them values in the same range as the lights. Students, fascinated by these reflected lights, are often extremely difficult to convince to deepen these values. Illustrated by the edited drawing above, this exaggerating of the reflected lights leads to a confusion as to the direction of the light, giving the appearance of multiple light sources and making the drawing difficult to read. The general rule for the reflected lights is that, while they do exist, they never become as bright as the primary lights. The reason for this is that reflected light is, by its nature, second hand and therefore weaker than the principal light source. This separation of lights and shadows is absolutely fundamental to the representation of light.
Thankfully for us, these problems are easily avoided through a consideration of the simple value groups of our subjects. Charles Bargue gives us the answer in his 19th century drawing manual ‘Cours de Dessin’. LARA students are started on copies of these plates and they are one of the best resources a beginning art student could ask for. In this drawing Bargue simplifies his subjects to 3 values exploring the solidity and finish of the drawing through the transitions between these simple values. Students would do well to take his example and start their drawings with a limited number of values (between 2 and 5) then gradually add complexity if necessary. Working in this way, from simple to specific, we can ensure that our drawings make a powerful, readable statement about our subject.