There is a lot of work that I do behind the scenes before I ever put paintbrush to canvas. One of the most important steps for me is to create value studies. These are small sketches that I use to organize the main forms in the painting and decide the darkness and lightness of each shape. This is key to make the painting interesting and have it "read" instead of being a jumble of colors and forms.
I actually do two value studies. The first is 2" x 2" (top) where I greatly simplify the image to four or five main shapes, and assign values to each one. This forces me to decide on my focus and plan how the shapes and lines will lead the eye through the painting.
In the second value study, which is 4" x4", I add more detail to the sketch, and break it into three or four values. Everything in the sun is usually a light value and everything in the shade is either medium or dark value. This simplification results in a strong design and a clear statement.
Sometimes it's not easy to stay true to my original design statement as I paint. It's tempting to try to make things look true to life instead of forcing them to support the overall design statement. You can see I made a lot of changes to the foreground chairs and figures in order to make them stay in the shadows and not detract from the other elements.
In the second value study, I removed the middle big tree so that the lawn could run from left to right. I also saw that I would need to reduce the value range in the palace facade so that it could read as one unit and not be broken up. If i were to paint in all of the small, dark windows, it would detract from the flower urn and the figures. This sketch also made me realize that the flower urn would have to be darker than the palace, so that it could move forward and be readable.
I'm still working on this painting. You'll have to stay tuned to see how well I hold to my original design concept!
These value studies really help me organize my paintings and keep me from getting lost as I paint. I feel strongly that it is value that creates a compelling composition. However, people rarely comment on a painting's composition; instead they will rave about its colors. There is a saying among artists, "value does all the work and color gets all the credit." I think that is absolutely right!