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High Key vs. Low Key

When you become a Value Ninja you start to see small changes in darks and lights that captivate you, and make you want to concentrate on the opposite ends of the value scale.

Artists who paint in "high key" are artists who concentrate on the lighter end of the value scale, like the first three values in the illustration below:

A high key painting is one that doesn't have pure darks and black. The darks tend to be more middle values. Here's a few examples from one of my favorite painters; Karen O'Neil:

I love how colorful high key paintings are. You can really juice up your color when you are focusing on the lighter values.

As a classically-trained artist, it's hard for me to limit values and go high key. I fight with myself and wind up going dark. Here's one of my high key paintings:

Low key is more my speed, simply because I like the dark side of the value scale and the mystery of it. I have always admired the Italian concept of Chiaroscuro and the boldness of dark with whispers of light that define forms. This has a lot to do with edges and the concept of "lost and found" edges. Lost edges melt into darkness and you really can't see where one form ends and another begins. Found edges are the hard edges of a lit surface that are well-defined by the light.

One of my favorite contemporary low key painters is C.W. Mundy. Here's an example of his work:

I love how the forms emerge and disappear into the darkness. Some of the forms are not well defined and you use your imagination to create "closure" by completing the form mentally; like the bottom of the copper vessel and orange.

Here's my version of a low key painting:

In landscape painting its the nocturnes that create an emotional response from me. I've always been drawn to the low key light and color after the sunsets.

Regardless of your level of ability, challenge yourself to expand the value scale. When you are able to see and capture 5 values from dark to light, push yourself to 10 values. If you are not sure what I'm talking about here (values, value scale, etc) I have an online drawing class starting up in July you may be interested in. Its on my website under online classes.

If you are comfortable with 10 values, break the value scale in half, and focus on the high key values for one painting, then the low key values for another.

The more you do this, the better your artist's eye. We are training ourselves to see into the shadows and the lights. Tease out those subtle nuances between lights and darks. The more you do this the sharper your eye!

Besides, it keeps you out of trouble and off the streets!

I'd love to see some of your examples of high key and low key paintings. If you do these exercises, please post your results below.

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