How to Master the Art of High Key Painting and Use of Light Values

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When it comes to painting (and drawing), there exists a broad spectrum of values to explore and work with. However, for a more refined approach, one can narrow down their focus to a specific range. Today, our attention will be directed towards high key values, and how they can be masterfully applied to create a painting that is “high key”.

In this article, we will explore what high key values in painting are, what makes them unique, and how you can apply them to your own work.

What makes a painting high key?

High key paintings are characterized by their lightness in value, and lack of strong contrasts. For example, when you take a look at a value scale, as it relates to art, you will notice how it ranges from the darkest value your medium can produce to the lightest value. And the degree of lightness or darkness you can create, will vary depending on whether you are using oil paints, pastels, watercolors, or any other medium.

The values in the graph above are divided into three groups. Notice how the upper third section is the “high key value” group.

In the diagram above, you can see a clear image of a basic value scale that is divided up into “low key”, “middle key”, and “high key”. And the values that fall into the upper 3rd range of the value strip can be designated as high key values or light values.

So, paintings that are considered “high key” are primarily made up of the values that fall within the higher/ lighter range of values. Instead of relying on strong contrasts, high key painting is made up of subtle differences in value and color to establish depth and form.

In the above watercolor painting by JMW Turner (The Channel Sketchbook 34) we can see how the piece is made up of high key values. This is especially apparent when we see the monochrome version of the painting. Compare the painting to the high key values on the value strip.

The Role of Soft Colors in High Key Paintings

The colors in high key painting tend to be softer and less saturated than those in darker or middle key paintings. This is because more saturated colors have more pigment and are therefore darker in value. It is important to understand color value in art to be able to create high key paintings.

Examples of high key paintings

There are many beautiful roman fresco paintings that are high in value.

High key paintings have been done for thousands of years. Take for example the Roman Fresco painting seen above. The piece is primarily made up of values found in the upper value register. When you compare the piece to any work by Caravaggio it will become immediately clear how light in value the painting really is.

High Key Values in Impressionist paintings

In addition, we see a strong presence of high key values in paintings from the impressionists. Artists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were known for their high key painting techniques. A big reason for this is that their focus was on color versus creating strong light and dark value contrasts. In the painting below by Monet, we can see how the entire painting is made primarily of light values. There are of course a few slightly darker value colors in the painting to create a sense of light. However, these values are just slightly darker and still fall within the higher key range of the value scale.

Glaçons, Effet Blanc (1893) By Claude Monet. Notice how light in value this whole painting is. The ever so slightly darker bluish and purplish colors create the illusion of shadows.

We can also see how Monet uses color temperature to create the illusion of shadow versus creating stronger darker value contrasts. When working in a higher value range it is very important to pay close attention to color temperature as the subtlest changes make a big difference in your painting.

How to apply high key values in your own work

Spain (Crevillente) by Jan Ciagliński. This is a great example of a high key value painting.

Once you have a firm understanding of values and can consistently create a luminous quality in your artwork, it’s beneficial to explore the use of high key values in your paintings. This technique can be applied to various subjects, such as landscapes, still life, portraits, or even abstract compositions.

How to create high key values in different mediums

You are also not limited by medium. High key values can be applied whether you work with oil paints, watercolor, gouache or something entirely different. Though it is important to keep in mind that some mediums have different ranges of values than others. For example, watercolors tend to be a little lighter in value than other mediums. You just need to pay attention to the value range of the medium you are working with.

La Toilette (Le Bidet) by Edgar Degas. Different mediums have the ability to cover different value ranges. Some, like oil paints, are able to cover a very wide range. While others might be a little lighter in value, such as watercolors.

Choosing your value scale

As you gain expertise and mastery in establishing clear values in your work. You will be able to select the most suitable value scale to operate within. Which will allow you to achieve greater precision and refinement in your work.

Even if you are painting something that has rather dark values, you can impose high key values on your subject. Doing so, can help you to create a light and playful mood in your work. Even if the subject matter you are depicting, is something that might typically be considered heavy or serious.

Desert from Kislovodsk to Samarkand. From the journey to Turkestan (1913) by Jan Ciagliński. Once you’re able to create strong values in your work. You can start exploring imposing different value ranges on your subject. Explore working in a high key range with your work.

Where to find inspiration for a high key painting or drawing

As you can see from the examples provided within this article. High key paintings are stunning and can be applied to many different subjects. By utilizing a soft color scheme and subtle changes in value, you can create something subtle, gentle and dreamy like.

So, consider experimenting with high key painting in your own work. You will see how it can give your work a whole new dimension!

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    14 thoughts on “How to Master the Art of High Key Painting and Use of Light Values”

    1. Judith Bakewell

      Thankyou Elizabeth
      I visited an Art Show yesterday and was particularly drawn to one Artists paintings that featured the very light luminous quality you talk about. On close examination she used broken colour and subtle changes in colour to produce the effect. Reading your article was an A-haa moment in understanding the technique. Love it !
      I really appreciate the depth of
      Insight you pass on as a teacher .
      Thankyou so much
      Judith

    2. Thank you for this article. I thought that paintings required high value contrast. Painting with high key values is a new addition to my understanding of what I see.
      Cathleen

    3. Christopher Toplyn

      I really appreciate the work you put into this painting blog, Elisabeth. It’s been many years since I was in school for painting, and your perspective on the subject keeps me connected to my purpose. Thank you and please continue!

    4. Hi Elizabeth, I am not to crazy about high value painting. I lean more towards middle value. Sometimes I think the dark are even to dark on some paintings. I do like Monochrome. I seem to like the bright er colors.

    5. Very interesting. I will try to incorporate more high values in my watercolor paintings. I had not been exposed to this concept before. Thank you!

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