The Darkest Dark and Lightest Light

Article by Darren Rousar. Most recently updated in May of 2020.

inness-autumn-oaksGeorge Inness, Autumn Oaks

Context is everything, or so the saying goes, and it’s so familiar that it’s easy to quickly skip past it. But stop and think about it for a minute. In any given scene all values are unconsciously perceived relative to every other value. To successfully represent that perception onto a paper or canvas you must make sure that all values within your artwork are also relative to each other. And to do that you must first be mindful of the extremes: the darkest dark and lightest light.

The value range of nature (called its gamut) and that of our materials do not match. For instance, the softest charcoal cannot render a dark as dark as the darkest dark in most scenes. Conversely, the lightest light in most natural scenes is lighter than any paper, paint, or white chalk can be. Therein lies the problem, and it is the same problem regardless of our chosen materials.

The solution to the problem is to engage in a process of comparison, again, beginning with the observed extremes: the darkest dark and the lightest light. These comparisons allow you to accurately adjust what you perceive in nature to the gamut of your materials.

Why begin with the darks? First off, you do not have to. That said, it is a common approach because most of the materials we have available to us are able to come closer to the darker end of nature’s gamut than to the lighter end.

Since our materials skew to the dark side of the value scale, beginning with the darkest dark gives us the best chance of using the entire gamut available while still maintaining the proper value relationships.

Beginning with the lights instead, and working down to the darks, often results in artificially limiting the already limited gamut of our materials. In other words, if you begin with the lights you may find that the shadows and darker halftones in your completed piece are relatively too light and that you have not used the full range of values available to you.

Of course, you may choose to do that for effect, as I think can be seen in the Twachtman below.

Twachtman-Golden-LandscapeJohn Henry Twachtman, Golden Landscape.

The standard process for making use of the extremes begins as follows:

  1. Squint at the scene to visually simplify it.
  2. While still squinting, find the darkest dark. It may help to focus slightly away from the shadow side of the object when determining this.
  3. Since you have already established the bedbug line as the separation between the world of light and the world of shadow, mass-in the shadow side slightly lighter than you observed.
  4. The highlight, and possibly parts of the lights will of course be the lightest lights. This will likely be quite obvious, whether squinting or not. Your paper, white chalk, or white paint will serve to represent these.

At this point you now have the extremes indicated. Although your shadow is slightly too light (which I will discuss in another article), you will eventually darken that down.

All that remains is to work from that observed darkest dark, progressively up to that observed lightest light. Upon every new value observation you would determine a relatively accurate value based entirely on how it compares to the darkest dark (for the darks and halftones) and to the lightest lights (for the lights). This results in contextually accurate value relationships that fall within the broadest range available in your chosen medium.

The article had as its genesis my book, The Sight-Size Cast.



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