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Value Structures: The Lessons of NC Wyeth

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As it so often happens, I’m working away on a personal painting and midway through I discover that it can be much stronger than I thought. This happens a lot, especially with non client work. Because I don’t have to stick to a client approved sketch, the piece is subject to change as I find better solutions. This used to bother me; it seemed like a shortcoming in that the solution to a painting didn’t emerge until after I started working on it. Now I just consider it part of the process and with digital painting it’s incredibly easy to rework and adjust a piece on the fly.

In fact, the discovery of a better painting is often what makes me excited about working on it in the first place. Like an addictive video game, there’s always something to unlock. This happened on my latest piece, “The Brigand,” and it was while looking at the work of classical illustrator N.C. Wyeth that I found my solution.

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N.C. Wyeth is one of these artists that is so firmly enmeshed in the halls of golden age illustration that it’s easy to overlook him. His work is so good that we stop thinking about just WHAT makes it so good. I actually am not a huge fan of his brushwork. It’s the value structure and composition that makes NC’s work so incredible.

Take this cover of “Heidi” for an anthology of children’s stories for example. Our eyes go right to the girl with the goat, even though the boy with the walking stick is in the foreground. Why is that? What’s happening that makes the smaller object the focus of the picture?

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Looking at it in black and white is a helpful filter. Notice how the large triangle shapes of the mountains form an interesting pattern around the girl, drawing our eyes to her. The shadow of the mountains on the left make a big triangle pointing into the girls skirt and the herd of goats leads our eyes into a pleasing horizontal.

Take a look at the boy’s walking stick – notice how NC does not have it go off the picture plane. Instead, it draws our eye to the rock that subtly points us back up to the girl. Everything has been carefully considered so that our focus is correctly positioned.

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Here’s another one: “George Washington at Yorktown.”

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Again, NC is making use of value to guide our eye very efficiently around the image. Working with this kind of high contrast daylight scheme is really challenging because it is easy to throw everything into a sharp light and dark values, ruining the value structure. Instead, NC is using it his advantage to throw Washington’s profile into sharp relief and taking the shadow shapes of his cast shadow and those boards on the ground to guide your eye around the image. That circular guide your eye around thing – he is just killer at that.

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The dilemma of how to work with high contrast daylight values is what was throwing me for a loop with “The Brigand.” I have a tendency to use dark value schemes, so for a change I decided to set my character in full daylight in a mountain scene. I was really having a tough time – in the left image, you can see that the value structure is confused. I put this big wagon behind a supporting character and it making this large dark shape that wasn’t serving my story or the main character well.

Looking at Wyeth helped me sort out this value problem by going for readability first. I tore apart my previous structure and started placing basic values in the image – light gray here, dark gray there – and so on, until I had something that was working better. Only later did I start assigning them as “tree”, “rock” or “mountain.”

This is the challenge with value structures – they are totally independent of how things look in reality. They operate on their own regardless of what the image actually is. Ever wonder why a random photo you take will just look so much better than hundreds of others? It’s probably because the value structure is working by accident. It happens to me sometimes. But when it’s a painting it behooves the artist to make values work on purpose.

I’m still looking at these Wyeth paintings and scratching my head at what makes them work so well. I still don’t understand value quite as well as he did, but I’m striving for it. One day I’ll get there!