Value Contrast – Stage 2

What’s out there in terms of  making the best of value contrasts?

At this stage, I explore a bit how other illustrations/images use contrasts of value as the predominant composition tool. In the end, I highlight what I believe are the most interesting stuff, conclusion-like (you may cheat and go to the end right now).

The best example out there that I know is Sin City, by Frank Miller. This comic, deeply influenced by Film Noir, uses almost entirely the contrast between big areas of black and white, with the occasional inclusion of a few colors, to represent shape, texture, and emotional burden.

It makes good use of the technique of blacking things out to make the reader’s imagination tingle. The next pic is an awesome example.


Source (modified)

The most interesting things I notice:

  1. Black out. The face is all dark, except the eyes and some minimal white areas. It gives the character plenty of intent. The shapes are very simple but at the same time very powerful. Exceptional art does not mean a lot of detail.
  2. Suggest. The mind can understand shape and texture from minimal details. There are two prominent examples. First, look at the hand in the background. We understand perfectly that this is a hand, however it’s only a black shape without inner details. Subtle bumps give perfectly the idea of fingers. The weapon is also perfectly understood thanks to very small “steps” along its shape. The second example is the brick wall. We understand it without problems thanks to the little gaps, and its slight irregularity. The unconscious automatically imagines the brick of walls on seeing the picture. And it’s basically nothing more than a huge black shape without any texture inside.
  3. Discontinuous contrast. Contrasts don’t need to be continuous separations of value to define shape effectively. Look at the bottom of the foreground arm. It’s basically black, like the coat below. The arm and the coat, however, are clearly separate elements. Frank does this with the white lines (folds in the coat). The folds on the coat are “cut” by the arm, which in its lower part does not have folds. The separation between black and white happens only on the folds, but the brain interprets it as a continuous contrast. I like to call it autocompletion function of the brain.

More Frank:


Source. A whore in Sin City.

  • The shuriken-earring: high contrast edges to define shape. Nothing else is needed here. It is irrelevant whether shurikens are black or white.
  • Bare shoulder. Here autocompletion works again. The little gap where the shoulder is bare does not make it difficult to define its shape. It even gives sensuality.
  • No shadow in the neck cast by the head. Although the hair subtly suggests the shape of the chin.

Source. And even another Sin City whore. Wait, are there women who are not whores in this city?

  • Hair. I like what Frank did with the hair here. The texture is resolved only in the black/white edges. The shadow (the black part) of the hair has the double purpose of creating the illusion of volume, and defining the shape of the head and neck.
  • Shoulders. Autocompletion. Whereas the hair and the shoulders merge, it is easy to distinguish the shape of the shoulders.
  • Again, no shadow in the neck cast by the head.
  • The texture on the dress to define the sensual volumes of the body is nicely executed. These lines do not cover the entire dress, only what is needed to represent the volume. Frank uses not only the direction, also the thickness of the white line to highlight particular volumes. And look at how simply the hand gloves are represented.

It looks like, in such pictures, less is more.

Now, my highlights:

  • Black it out. Use black, pitch dark shadow to add expression. Example: face in black.
  • Suggest, instead of defining everything in the picture. Example: Define an element only with its outer shape.
  • Discontinuous contrast. Contrast between two elements to distinguish them can be eliminated in certain places, and the elements will still be distinguished.
  • Minimalistic texture. Define texture on the contrast edges.
  • Minimalistic shadows. Example: No shadow cast by the head on the neck.
  • Bonus: He does not use grey at all. Just white and black. Again, minimalism.

Of course, all this can be applied or not. But the art by Frank Miller is pretty spectacular, and he very clearly masters contrasts of value. Bluntly said, copying him does not sound like a bad idea.

I guess the next step will be trying these techniques by myself.


Value Contrast – Stage 1

Value differences are damn important. Identification of areas with different value may be the most critical mechanism by which our brain understands visual information. Fundamentally, one white shape becomes highlighted against a black background.

From what I have read, I consider value the main compositional tool, and also the most basic, not sketch (or lineart). Lineart allows us to understand what a drawing is, but we never see it in nature. The main thing that we see all around us is precisely that, differences in value.

I find it more than justified to begin this journey into color domination by entering first into the realm of value.

For this, I neglect everything else. Saturation, hue, realistic shadowing… all these things don’t even exist. And no. Not even lineart, not even drawing is allowed to me at this point.

Only black, white, and all the shades of grey in between. Is it not somewhat ironic, that I decide to begin learning color by omitting it completely and only using black and white?

What’s the first assignment? To get rid of all concerns besides value, I decide to take a picture that I like and is not too complex, and convert it into a lineart. Actually, I’m look for a lineart, but I don’t immediately find one that I like, so I take this picture by the wonderful artist Jenny Dolfen, and using a few photoshop tricks, I remove the color tonalities and only keep (roughly) the lineart.


(Note: This is not meant to be a tutorial, I won’t explain how I do everything that I do)

I want a premade lineart, of course, because I don’t want to make it myself at this point. Then I work under the lineart, using a brush with zero saturation and varying value.

I begin working under the following constraint:

  • Use value to separate different elements. Avoid two adjacent areas having the same value.

Simply because I assume that to define different adjacent objects, I need to use different values. If two adjacent areas share the same value there’s simply no contrast at all. After one hour or so, end up with this:


These characters are Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond (if you don’t know them, go flagellate yourself and then read The Lord of the Rings).

I observe some things in the process:

  • Don’t get obsessed with separating every single physical object with different values. Some objects work better by sharing one value, even if they are strictly speaking two different things. For example, Galadriel works better being mainly white with small shades of grey.
  • Use a hierarchy in applying ranges of value. At some point, I want to make each figure clearly distinguishable. Since Galadriel has to be a very light figure, I use in general darker values for the other two figures. This I call macro. At the same time, within each figure, I also establish certain contrasts of value (Gandalf’s beard, Elrond’s patterns in the clothes). This I call micro.
  • I feel that stronger value contrasts within one character give more complexity or duality (Gandalf, Elrond). Characters with more subtle contrasts seem to have more unity (Galadriel). Or I may just want to believe it. Value contrasts can be used to confer certain personality traits.

I feel like this was an useful exercise.

This is not all. By no means. There is still much about value. There’s still a dark mountain before me. A black mountain against a white sky.

I’ll be thinking about the next stage of the journey.

Learning Schedule: Content Index

My intent here is to deconstruct PAINTING, artistic DESIGN, and perhaps also DRAWING, reporting my learning process. I go for the self-taught way, based on resources that I find here and there.

The order of the content is based on my own interest, which right now is learning painting and the use of color with photoshop. I have been drawing all my life, and I love it. It transports me to another dimension where everything is possible. If you want to check what I’ve done in the past: here. But, at this point I am not satisfied with my current level, and I want to power up. My goal is to find the minimum resistance way to improve my skills to a level which makes me happy. What would be that level? For the moment, I’d like to be able to make stuff at the level of these guys:


If I could do stuff like that, I’d be happy enough (all are pros).

How will I do it?

After reviewing some basic material, I devised a simple table of contents, and exercises to help me improve. Next table may change with time and experience.

1. VALUE contrast

2. SATURATION contrast

3. V(alue)+S(aturation)

4. “EVERYTHING IS A MIRROR”, and basics of light
– Specular light/shadow
– Diffuse light/shadow
– “Ground light”
– Kinks and Borders

5. Value/Saturation–based LIGHTNING


7. V+S+H(ue)

8. NCS (Natural Color System)


9. THE FUTURE. Here, I may add additional sections about DESIGN. This is still quite far away, so I’ll leave it cloudy for the time being. If I ever complete the previous sections, we’ll then unlock this part 😉 Yes, we unlock it, exactly like a new level in a videogame. Same goes for DRAWING.

This index should be overtime expanded to include the exercises and experiments that I complete.

There are some rules that I’ll try to stick to:

  • One: Focus on one thing at a time, removing as much as possible every extra that adds complexity.
  • Two: Build on top of previous knowledge.
  • Three: Use the Minimum Effective Dose (do the minimum that yields the maximum results). I hate to do more work than necessary.
  • Four: Do small simple things. I don’t like complications. And I am impatient: I want results fast.

Finally, why do I document it? Two reasons:

  • Obviously, to measure and log my advance.
  • Secondly to, with time, create content that may be helpful for others.
  • Bonus reason: To create fruitful relationships with you people (and of course to have fun).

WARNING: For the time being I’m gonna be using photoshop. No traditional painting!