David Rankin at the TexArt Workshop – May 2016

Where are the Darkest Darks?

In order to help you understand this subject of Middle Values better… I’ve selected a number of paintings from artists of the 1800’s. And the focus of your attention and evaluation… in each painting… is simply… Where are the Darkest Darks?

However… I am not referring to Black.  Sargent Sailboats

When I use the term Darkest Dark… I am simply referring to the darkest value used in a painting.

In many cases the darkest value in a painting may in fact be a Middle Value. It’s just that in training watercolor painters… I have to get them used to a more accurate assessment of values. And all too often… they interpret Darkest Dark to mean Black. In some of these paintings you will see how the Darkest Dark is no where near as dark as Black.

I’ve created this graphic to help identify precisely what we are looking for in each painting.

David Rankin Watercolor Values Chart

Only 3 Steps Required…

The procedure is rather simple. When first evaluating a potential painting subject… either directly while working outdoors… or from photo reference in studio… you engage in what I call my Observation & Evaluation Recipe. This is a precise set of perceptual procedures that you use to evaluate and subject.

1st Step)  Engaging this procedure… you start by looking for… and evaluating… the very Darkest Features of any possible painting subject. And you develop the artistic habit of doing this first. Where are they? And… how dark are they?

2nd Step)  Once you’ve identified the very Darkest Features… you switch… and now focus on the very Lightest Features.

3rd Step)  And once you have identified where the very Darkest Features are… as well as the very Lightest Features… you then make note that everything else in this particular subject… is going to be painted in Middle Value Colors. 

Dark Light Middle - Edgar Alwin Payne (1882-1947)

1)   The Darkest Elements:  The first rectangle on the left… consists of both a darkest Dark Black… as well as a Dark Gray. These are the first visual elements to look for in any potential painting subject.

2)  The Lightest Elements:  The middle rectangles represent all of those elements in any painting that will remain very bright and vivid colors… very light colors… and of course the white of the paper.

3)  The Middle Values:  Once you’ve evaluated where the darkest elements of a painting are… followed by which elements will remain very light, bright, or white paper… everything else in that subject will in fact fall somewhere in the Middle Values. And in fact… usually 50%-75% of any painting is actually Middle Values!

And in order to clarify this process… we’re going to study the artwork created by several 19th century painters in order to see how they manipulated these 3 different color values to achieve the depth, drama, and mood in their paintings. Now don’t be confused. There are only a few of these that are actual watercolors. The rest are oils. But the concept applies to all paintings irregardless of the medium.

It’s just that I am a Watercolor painter… the best of all mediums… so I talk Watercolor!


The amazing illusion of depth

Light Dark Medium- Frederick Mulhaupt (1871-1938)This whole subject is driven by my desire to help you create better depth in your paintings. This perception of visual depth in a painting… is in fact… an illusion. There is  no real depth. It’s a flat piece of paper with some pigment on the surface. It’s Magic! The ability to create a watercolor that appears to have visual depth… is a magical illusion created by the successful manipulation of several visual factors… most of which… are the Values. How you build a painting… using these procedures… will result in a painting that succeeds at convincing the viewer that there is depth… where in fact there is none!


dark light medium- Howard Russell Butler (1856-1934) . Late Afternoon in Zion Canyon

As I use this process for evaluating potential subjects for my own possible painting efforts… I simply want to know where these darkest elements are… and… in which Spatial Plane they should be in my painting? Below you will see 3 illustrations indicating where the Darkest Darks can be placed. There are actually 9 such illustrations that also show Whitest White and Middle Value placement. But the easiest and most important to use as a guide are those focusing on the Darkest Darks. All of the paintings I will show you here have distinct value arrangements. And the single question to ask is… where are the darkest visual elements in these paintings?  Did the artist place the darkest elements in the Foreground… the Middle Distance… or in the Furthest Distance?


Value Planes Front Middle Distant

Remember… All we’re trying to study initially is where the darkest elements are in these paintings. In this process… the artists of the 1800’s who created these paintings.. actually knew what they were doing. the Darkest elements in a painting can actually be placed into any one of these 3 Spatial Planes… the Foreground… the Middle Distance… or the Far Distance.

Please Note:   They should not be placed in any two planes… only one! Otherwise you will flatten and weaken the illusion of Spatial Depth.

Medium dark light - Edward Harrison Compton (1881-1960)

Edward Harrison Compton (1881-1960)

Can you identify which of the 3 main Value Arrangements Edward Compton used to paint this landscape? Ask yourself… Where are the darkest visual elements… in the Foreground… Middle Distance… or Far Distance?

They’re in the Middle Distance. The Whitest, Lightest, elements are in the foreground. And the Elements in the Far Distance are grayer, paler, and weaker. Because Compton assembled his values in a correct manner… the illusion of visual and spatial depth is easy to see in this lovely landscape.

See… this isn’t so hard. Let’s try another…

All Middle-John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872)

Frederick Kensett (1816–1872)

The Most Common:  Stay focused on where the darkest features are. Can you see how the darkest features are in the closest foreground? And can you see how the various values get grayer and weaker… with less detail as they recede into the far distance? This is what I call the “Most Common” value arrangement you’ll see in everyday life & Nature. Kensett did a masterful job of creating an illusion of space & light in this painting. He did it by carefully adjusting the darkness of the features in this painting as they receded into the distance.

At this point… can you also see that there is very little dark brushwork in this painting. The Darkest Darks are only in this foreground area. The painting itself is 95%… all Middle Valued colors!

Dark light middle - Hans Fredrik Gude (1825-1903

Hans Fredrik Gude (1825-1903)

A bit different

In this dramatic painting by Hans Fredrik Gude… we again see the darkest features here in the foreground. However… look at that very lightest feature… that brilliant patch of overhead mid-day sunlight breaking through the clouds, and casting a very bright streak of sunlight across the distant water. Can you see how that very bright sunlight feature on the water… is what creates the illusion of depth … by seeming to lie behind all of these darker ships on the water. In this scheme… the Lightest Feature is actually in the Middle Distance… with light gray features further back in the Far Distance.

The Lightest features can also be in any of the 3 planes of distance. But for our purposes in developing a superb Working Method for our own painting procedures… our Main Focus must stay attentive to where the Darkest Features are… First!

If we can learn to pay close attention to this recipe… it will give you an unerring eye for any potential painting subject’s Value Arrangement.

The more you evaluate the artworks created by these artists from the 1800’s… the better you will be at evaluating your own ideas & efforts. Remember… these are not photos. These are all actual paintings that an artist created stage by stage… slowly developing the overall impact and mood by carefully adjusting the values in various parts of the painting. They knew what they were doing 150 years ago. And you can develop this same skill that these earlier artists possessed.

This is what I refer to as an Observation & Evaluation Skill. You learn to first… Observe Nature. You observe… you visually study the natural phenomena of light, space, and value. And then… you Evaluate what you are observing. You identify certain natural features and make a mental note of what you are seeing. If you can… you create a sketch or a quick study that helps you recall your observations later. If you haven’t the time to sketch the subject’s observations… you take a photo and make a mental note. But use your eyes first! Your eyes are far more sensitive than any camera.

That’s how I work both in the field working directly from Nature… and in my studio back home. And I’ve put this exercise together here to help you develop and refine this skill set by studying paintings of many artists of the 1800’s. They did not have such easy use of cameras and cellphones to record images. So they had to develop an excellent set of Observation & Evaluation Skills. By studying the paintings they created… we can learn to see and recognize value structures quickly and accurately.

Let’s continue…

Dark Light Middle - Hans Frederik Gude . The Fjord at Sandviken, 1879

Hans Frederik Gude . The Fjord at Sandviken, 1879

Dark – Light – Gray

Now look carefully at this painting done by Hans Gude in the late 1800’s. Can you see how this painting uses the very same Value Arrangement as the one before it… also painted by Hans Gude? The Darkest features are in the Foreground… with that brilliant blaze of reflected mid-day sunlight breaking through the clouds onto the water in the Middle Distance. The far distant landscape has some darker features… but they are not as dark as these darks in the foreground. They are painted a just bit lighter… paler… and grayer with hardly any details. And it’s this precise and carefully painted arrangement of values that creates the perceptual illusion of depth… where in fact there is none!

Here again… notice how very little dark brushwork there is in this painting. If you were able to lift out all of this darker brushwork… you’d see that the painting is actually 90% middle values… strategically placed!

Dark Light Middle - Jacob Isaackszoon van Ruisdael (1628-1682)

Jacob Isaackszoon van Ruisdael (1628-1682)

Same Recipe… Dark – Light – Gray

Here we have another very dramatic landscape… painted 200 years earlier than Hans Gude’s above! Yet… this artist also created a masterful illusion of light & depth… with the darkest features in the foreground… bright light in the middle distance… and grayer paler features in the far distance. It was all done with mostly middle values… and a bit of darker brushwork.

 Dark Light Medium-Howard Russell Butler (1856-1934)

Howard Russell Butler (1856-1934)

Gray – Dark – Light

Here’s a variation in what I’ve shown you thus far. Here the darkest darks are not in the foreground. They’re in the middle. The Lightest Brightest features are in the distant plane. This is why I recommend you identify where the darkest areas are first. The reason I’m showing you these paintings done by the artists of the 1800’s… is because they used correct methods resulting in clearly brilliant and effective paintings. When using photo reference instead of paintings… you’ll see how much more difficult it is to see these distinctions. These artists however… knew what they were doing… so in their artwork… it’s usually relatively easy to see these relationships. And by seeing them like this… you will begin to see them in photos as well. And all of this is meant to build up your ability to go outside to paint… and create far better works of art.

It’s all about the middle values

Ok… so now… I’ve shown you how I actually work… how I observe & evaluate every possible painting subject and idea. This isn’t just a theory to me… it is a process I’ve developed over the course of 30-40 years of painting in watercolors. And it works every time… with every subject. But here’s a variation that will show you precisely just how important the middle values of any subject are to painters… especially watercolor painters. It’s a painting that has no real dark brushwork at all.

Middle Values - Alexander Harrison (1853 - 1930)

 Alexander Harrison (1853 – 1930)

It’s All middle values! But what a great painting. Alexander Harrison created this dynamic image… using neither a deep dark darkest dark… nor is their a whole lot of bright white. It’s all middle values and it’s fabulous even without those extremes in value. In my method however… that darker middle value green color he used in the breaking wave… is in fact… this paintings “Darkest Dark”. That’s precisely why I use the term… Darkest Dark.

This is to show you that you can indeed create elegant powerful paintings that are comprised of primarily middle value colors… with very few extremes.

Middle Values - William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)

Once you understand what to look for… beginning with the Darkest features… then the Lightest. You quickly realize in paintings like this… that those elements are indeed important to the overall impact of the painting. But it’s in the overall middle values; which are usually the bulk of the brushwork… where you need to pay special attention. The middle values in this painting set the overall mood. The very few dark features establish the full value range.

Medium light dark- John Ottis Adams (1851-1927) . In Poppyland

John Ottis Adams (1851-1927) . In Poppyland

Here we do indeed have a darkest dark area… and its in the far distance. By placing those darks in the far distance… this entire flower bed appears to come forward towards us in the spatial illusion.

But can you see how Adams draws us into the illusion by placing the lightest brightest colors leading us back into the middle plane… and he gradually darkened and grayed the area right here in the foreground. This is not an accident. It was done with purpose… in order to better establish a visual illusion of depth. Your eye is attracted by the lighter, brighter, colors and drawn back into the middle distance area. There’s actually sound science underneath these artistic processes. Our visual perception is attracted by and our attention is drawn too… brighter colors and stronger contrasts. But even here… I want you to notice just how much of this painting is covered with middle value paint.

Strategic darks-Frederick Mulhaupt (1871-1937)

Frederick Mulhaupt (1871-1937)

Remember… where are the darkest areas or features in this dramatic harbor painting? Can you see how quickly your eyes were drawn to the few really dark features? Most of this painting is middle values… which the artist artfully used to frame the very whitest, lightest, brightest area of intense mid-day sunlight shimmering off the icy water. There are a lot of darker features; which in fact aren’t that dark. They’re kind of a dark middle value. They represent what I refer to as “Near-Darkest Darks”. They aren’t the Darkest Darks in the painting. Those are very few indeed. But they are dark enough to force your gaze into the bright icy middle and back into the depth of the painting. I can actually feel the crisp cold air in this painting. A masterpiece of controlled artistic value judgement. In fact… can you see how he manipulates our vision by purposefully graying the whites in the whole bottom 3rd of the painting. There is cooler bluish gray brushwork on both sides of the painting… leaving the brighter whites in the middle. These brightest whitest lightest areas are framed by darker warm colored brushwork that literally forces our eye back up into the middle of the composition… and backwards into the illusion of space. Masterful!

Kautzky Harbor Boats

Here’s my favorite Watercolor Painter of all… Ted Kautzky (1895-1959) Harbor Light.

I learned how to paint watercolors from Ted Kautzky’s classic book – Ways with Watercolor when I was just 16-17. Kautzky had such an astounding natural eye for color values… that’s how he started most of his paintings. That’s right… he’d paint the Darkest Darks… first. In this painting for instance… he developed the whole right side of the painting first. He’s the one who taught me the value of looking for and establishing the darkest darks first. But the painting is a masterpiece of Middle Values. We see here how he placed the darkest darks in this immediate foreground… and the whitest lightest area out there on the water to provide that boat with maximum contrast to catch your eye… and draw it back into space… creating a masterful illusion of depth. But to assure your eye of the far distance… look how he grayed that furthest hill on the far side of the harbor… 2 miles away in the distance.

Also… notice how he developed the ship on the left with some delicate dark brushwork and near-darkest darks in the hull… but he purposefully lightened the walls of the wharf and structures on the left. That subtle value difference visually brings that ship out away from the wall and structures… and provides yet another feature that helps create the illusion of space & depth in the painting. Masterful!

Summer Rain Original Middle Values

Drying out – 12″ x 16″ transparent watercolor on Arches 140lb. rough

Here’s one of my own watercolors. I love how metal roofs can create such electric brilliant reflected sunlight right after summer rains. I love how shorebirds, having gotten drenched during the storm, will find somewhere to bask in the heat of the sun to dry out. But for the purposes of our subject here… can you see how I placed the darkest dark brushwork in those pylons that support the pier? The bait shack is actually grayed enough to set it back a little distance in the illusion… even in the dark openings in the windows. If the darks in the bait shack were the same degree of darkness as the darkest dark brushwork I used in the pier structure… it would have flattened the illusion and weakened it. This painting is all about the middle values; which I used to paint around the intense bright metal roof… as well as all of the birds drying out all over the roof.

Favorite Sargents 2Sargent – Bedouin

Sargent’s mastery of the Middle Values

John Singer Sargent is one of my all-time favorite watercolor painters along with Kautzky and a few others. And I thought I’d show you just a few examples of how Sargent worked his middle values. He did a bunch of these paintings of Bedouin tribesmen… and they’re all great. But look at how little he had to add of Darkest Dark brushwork to direct our eyes to the main figure seated in front. Everything else is developed with a near full range of middle values. Then… he adds just a few brushstrokes of darkest dark… telling us to “look right here at this guy and his headdress. This is where I want you to look.”

Sargent 23Sargent – Military camp

Here we see a painting where it’s all middle values… no real darkest dark focal point brushwork… just elegant middle values that work just fine. Was he actually done with this painting? Did he get disturbed and leave it? Or… was he perfectly happy with how it looked at this stage and simply felt… Done? No matter… it is a masterpiece of middle values.

Sargent 100Sargent in the olive groves

Yet again… we see Sargent working his magic in the middle values… with no need for the darkest dark punch!

Sargent's Hermit & DeerJohn Singer Sargent – The Hermit

Here is a Sargent painting that had a huge effect on my understanding of Middle Values years ago. I came around the corner of the museum gallery in the Met and found myself mesmerized by this masterpiece. In fact it took me about a minute to actually discover the old hermit there in the lower right part of the canvas. The incredible abstraction of middle value brushwork that Sargent used to create the illusion of dappled light & shadow on the forest floor… is made even more challenging because he forces our gaze up into the darkest darks in the deep shade of the forest. The visual impact is tremendous as Sargent plays with our perceptive faculties and allows us to gradually discover not only the hermit… but two lovely deer as well.

Sargent Watercolor, San Rocco, Art, Venice, School Of,

Sargent Watercolor, San Rocco School, Venice

In my mind this famous Sargent watercolor… of a school in Venice… is on the opposite end of Sargent’s skills compared to the Hermit painting we just looked at. In the Hermit… he forced us to gradually discover the various features hidden in broad daylight. But here… he quite literally drags our gaze to the right and  down that canal off into the distance. He succeeds in this perceptual feat even with this very attractive large red wall beckoning us to spend more time inspecting it. It’s his masterful execution of middle values coupled with his ability to guide our eye right into his illusion… that yields such a profound sense of artistic satisfaction to viewers like us.

David in suit TexArt 2016

At the TexArt Workshop next spring I will be working with artists on the full range of imaging skills that go into this subject of Middle Values.

It is this skill set that sets Transparent Watercolor apart as the most sublime of all artistic mediums. I have lots and lots of truly talented and masterful artist friends who often ask me… Why don’t you paint in Oils or Acrylics?

My answer is simple… Because I can paint in Watercolor!

Come to the TexArt Workshop in Texas next May and David will help you become an even better Watercolor Painter!