Why Middle Values are Your Strongest Tool You Don’t Understand… Yet

The sensation of light in a painting is one of the most important characteristics for most realist painters, and impressionist painters.  In relation to color theory, warm vs cool, contrast, color shift, and high or low or middle key are all up for discussion.  With so many different tools and techniques, it’s difficult to reach consistent results.  The most challenging paintings are high and low key which means all values are primarily light or dark.

So middle key paintings hold some kind of secret to bursting forth with light, and are a bit easier to construct because it is closest to how we see the world most of the time.  The challenge is to recognize what colors are true to mid values and how to stay in that zone.  In the middle value zone colors are rich and vibrant when pure.  But we can also make use of grays, and that may be the simplest way to ensure a strong painting that receives darker and lighter values as it progresses.  Grays can keep the painting mid-keyed.

Go ahead and view some works by Clyde Aspevig, Scott Christensen, Daniel Keys, Richard Schmid. In general, these artists create artwork that is rich, middle keyed, and highly regarded.

We can even take a few steps back in time to these older master works that show strong middle keys that create luminosity.  It’s always good to see the pieces of the puzzle put together before we deconstruct it.  Then you will have all the understanding to make it work in your own art.

Franz Bischoff was famous for his powerful still lifes, specializing in roses and floral arrangements.  Well, the truth is he was a master at everything, including shapes and colors and landscapes.  You might not find much portraiture under his name, but he certainly understood how to make light appear in his art.

This piece, for example, contains all middle values within it’s center, save for some white foam which has been grayed slightly.  The yellow rocks are telling: notice they are not overly light and let’s zoom in for a in depth look.


It is so tempting to take a highlight color, like yellow, and just mix it with great amounts of white (it’s a highligh right?) and end up with a boring painting.  Take notice at the proper method above, and you can see the yellow values are actually very much in the middle, that means not much mixing with white! But the effect is a brighter color due to color saturation and value, that’s incredible!

So, since we’re looking at Bischoff already, here is a still life by him as well.  The same rules hold true.  In this piece, his lightest highlight is white with a tint of yellow.

In this one, you can see that he does also use a strong value contrast with the dark shadows (dark leaves) to the right of the highlight.  But, it is important that the greens, yellows, pinks all remain mid-valued throughout the rest.


Lastly, this example of the figure in landscape comes from Sargent, one of the most famous portrait painters.

The darkest and lightest areas are the hair and sleeves of this girl.  The highlights in the flowers and sky are not pure white, in fact they are also quite cool while the blouse’s sleeves feature warm shadows, and more yellow in and near the highlight.  The power of middle keys – an overall middle value painting – is clearly effective in all instances for capturing light and creating interest and composition.

So all this study leaves us with one basic point – don’t mix in white while painting (generally).  At some point, yes, it has to be added, but save it for the end.  Perhaps the easiest method is to create a middle value gray to mix into.  Grays can be created by mixing compliments, but mixing into a neutral gray will do similarly while helping to maintain hue and middle value.  To get the desired gray, add white, blue, yellow, and red, or buy a neutral gray if you’re not into the fun.

Cadmium yellow / cad yellow light is basically a saturated, middle tone, as is cadmium red / cad red light, but the pthalo blue I love is really much darker.  So adding some white to the blue for me is ok, adding white to the yellows and reds is the biggest mistake.  You can see in the studies above, and with the more modern artists, the browns, warm greens, reds, and yellows are so critical and much darker than you might have originally thought.  Try that cad yellow straight from the tube at least once and you will love yourself for it.  In the rocks bleow, the middle values of the rocks are a base of grays, purpleish, greenish, brown… but the brightest color is pure cadmium yellow.  Compared to the white foam color next to it, it is much darker, but feels brighter.

In these images you can see the maintaining of middle values, but use of pure middle values for creating strong light.  Alghough there is white in the plate, the oranges hold the most intensity and interest:


In this series of images, I wanted to show that painting onto a white canvas, middle tones are probably darker looking than you might expect.  but in the end, it turns out to be what makes the bright areas stand out so well


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