The Beauty of Low Key Paintings: A Guide to Dark Value Paintings

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As artists, we are often drawn to light and color. However, have you ever explored the wonder of dark value paintings? These paintings, also known as low key paintings, can be mysterious, intriguing, and hold a certain power that brighter paintings can’t evoke.

Though perhaps not as popular as high key paintings, low key paintings have captured the hearts of many artists for centuries. In this article, we’ll explore what low key (dark value) paintings are and why they’re important. In addition, you learn about their presence in art history and how you can create your own low key masterpiece!

What are low key paintings?

Low key (or dark value) paintings, are paintings that contain darker values than the standard range of values that brighter paintings normally have. The paintings mostly use values from the lower end of the scale, creating a moody and mysterious feel. They express a unique beauty that can be as captivating as high key paintings.

For example, in the painting below, most values come from the low end of the value scale. We might see some highlight areas that are a little bit lighter in value – but these are very small.

In the painting above “Still life with strawberries” by Joseph H. Dille. You can see how the values used in the painting are mostly from the lower end of the value spectrum. There are fewer lighter values compared to the very dark ones.

Why dark value (low key) paintings are important

While dark value paintings may lack a light and airy quality, they can still make a striking impact with color. With dark tones, it’s easier to mix rich colors that have depth and character. Also, working with dark values provides you as an artist with flexibility. As you are able to create subtle changes in tone and contrast, that can be trickier to achieve in lighter value paintings. Just like a lower range in music, dark paintings can create a different mood and atmosphere in art.

Saturated colors are darker

In order to create rich deep colors you need to go into darker values. Therefore dark value paintings tend to have richer colors than lighter value paintings.

In high key painting you are not able to use very rich colors. Dark value painting is entirely different in that you have the possibility to push color as much as you would like. Therefore, it affords you the opportunity to create paintings with intense and luminous color.

Examples of dark value paintings in art history:

In this painting “Afterglow” by George Inness we can clearly see how the dark values of the piece convey a specific mood in the landscape.

There are many examples of low key/dark value paintings in art history. The prominent American landscape painter George Inness would often work in low key range with rich dark tones, making his paintings glow with an almost spiritual quality. The way the subtle tones contrast with areas of more saturated colors makes for a beautiful interplay of color notes.

george inness landscape low key painting of a scene in the woods with moon
Picnic in the woods, Montclair, New Jersey by George Inness

Dark Value, Dutch Paintings

Many Dutch and Flemish painters of the past would also work in the darker value range, creating paintings that are at once moody and intricate. The darkness in these paintings add depth and emotion to the artworks. Also, because of the contrast between the dark values and the slightly lighter highlight areas – a soft glow is created.

dark value, low key painting still life by a dutch artist
Still life with implements of war by Jan Jansz Van Buesem. It is common to see dark valley paintings in old master Flemish and Dutch paintings as they often worked in a darker value range.

How to create your own low key paintings

To create your own low key paintings, it’s important to start with value studies of simple subject matters. Begin first with darkly lit and low contrast scenes. Then work on imposing a darker value scale to a normal motif that may be lighter in value. Experiment with different tones, and colors and how they interact to create layers and depth.

example of low key paintings via a dark value tonal painting of a landscape with a bridge and two mountains
A Bridge in a Mountainous Landscape by Herbert Crowley. Here we see simple shapes of dark value colors forming an interesting and moody composition.

In order to successfully impose a dark value scale onto any subject matter you need to have a solid foundation in creating strong values. Because venturing into darker values is a more advanced step. So you want to be able to create a clear value structure easily, to avoid great frustration!

Start small with dark value thumbnails

It is helpful to start small with a thumbnail sketch. I suggest using willow charcoal or a pencil. Experiment creating dark value compositions before engaging with color.

If you have an established foundation in strong values, start to create monochrome thumbnail value drawings with darker values. This will help you to figure out how to create darker values on a smaller scale in monochrome before dealing with the complexities of color on a larger surface area.

Next steps in dark value painting

Dark value paintings hold a unique and special place in the world of fine art. They offer artists an opportunity to explore depth and complexity in tone, contrast, and color. Working with darker values not only adds mood and character to a painting, but also allows artists to create complex, subtle changes that are often difficult to achieve with lighter paintings. If you haven’t explored the world of low key paintings yet, it’s high time to step out of your comfort zone and give it a try!

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    30 thoughts on “The Beauty of Low Key Paintings: A Guide to Dark Value Paintings”

    1. Hi Elisabeth
      At last I am back on line after repairs to my computer. I have read the last two posts and have enjoyed them, but I must admit I like painting light rather than dark; although I do have difficulty keeping my mixing light. Thank you so much for all your help and support.

      My kind regards and best wishes for this new year.
      Mike D

    2. I have always found low key paintings old fashioned, less exciting and less accessible somehow.
      Are there any more modern artists who have created low key paintings that you can point us towards?

      1. This is a great question Gillian! I definitely see where you are coming from with this as it is the typical image we have in our minds of going to a museum and seeing room after room of very old dark paintings 😆. There are a number of contemporary artists today that do work in a low key range. To name a few – E.M. Saniga, Kurt Knoblesdorf, Victor Man – not all of the paintings by these artists are low key, but quite a few are.

    3. Interesting article, I tried some times night scenes on my own idea but I can not finish them. I retain some rules and method (first monocrome Thumbnail format) I hope to try soon such a painting,

    4. Elisabeth,
      There are amazing video courses out there and some I have picked up from Youtube, Udemy and Domestika. But your written tutorials are both simple and deep with wisdom. Your writing is so clear and we appreciate all the work you have done to share these with us. It clearly shows how you love art and how you love to share these insights with us. Thank you! Your teaching is a treasure. Shalom.

      One of these days, I will save enough and enroll in your Masterclass. Love your style of teaching.

    5. I have always loved the dark mysterious feel in paintings 💓. Thank you for the wonderful insight to art Elizabeth 🙏🏻

    6. I recently found out my maternal grandmother was a very good artist and many of her paintings used low colours. One hung in our Laundry, and often wondered who the artist was as I grew up. My grandmother passed away when i was nearly 2, so I did not have the pleasure of being with her. This article has brought it all back. I will endeavour to use it in some paintings. Thanks again Elisabeth.

      1. This is very special to hear! How lovely that your grandmother was an artist and even though you unfortunately did not get to know her – you do get to enjoy her work today. I think that will be great to extend her artistic legacy by also working on some low key paintings.

    7. Hi Elizabeth, thank you for your latest article on low-key painting. I have found myself drawn to paintings with darker values of late and I think you articulated it well when you said they can add mood and character to a painting, something which I had not appreciated. Awhile back I copied one of Whistler’s Nocturne’s in Black and Gold because I wanted something relatively simple (my words) to paint. But once I got into it, I really began to appreciate all the subtle changes in the dark values that gave the painting such a complex quality I had not seen when I began. You have challenged us, to try to create our own low-key painting and I am now inspired to do my own. Thank you! Question: I used to assume that those darker value paintings by the Dutch and Flemish masters was because they were often working in dimly lit places, not having the benefit of the excellent lighting we can work with today. However, I am now beginning to think, because of the mood and emotional response the darker paintings invoke, that it was perhaps much more intentional rather than circumstances. Do you have any thoughts on that?

      1. You are so welcome Ann, a glad that you enjoyed this article. The Whistler painting you mentioned is such a beautiful example of low key painting. And it is entirely true how we fail to really appreciate and notice all the subtle changes that exist there until we really study it. Am glad you will take up working on a low key painting!

        That is a good point to bring up. There are a couple of reasons why the paintings by the Flemish and Dutch old masters are darker in value. One is that they intentionally did paint them darker in value for the kind of effect they were after. They wanted to create a dramatic effect of having a dark background and central figures in the painting emerging out of that. The other is that they have aged darker over time as oil and varnishes darken over time. So they have become darker than they originally were when the artist painted it. Also, dirt and soot does accumulate on the painting surface. Sometimes we get to see how much lighter a painting is after a museum cleans it!

        1. Thank you, Elisabeth, for your reply to my question. I had not considered that of course we often don’t see the paintings in their original values because of the effects of ageing varnish and debris that has accumulated unless they are professionally cleaned and restored. I particularly appreciate your comment that they wanted to create a dramatic effect with the central figures emerging out of a darker background. I shall look at those old masters with enlightened eyes. Thank you!

    8. Most inspirational, as are all of your posts. But this in particular, it really makes me want to try a low key painting.

    9. Thank for the article. It came right on time as I’m studying different values and learning to use charcoal as a first stage. It’s helpful to see how old masters actively used the low key value. One of the most famous is probably Rembrandt’s The night guard

    10. Makes me feel better about the results of my black & white study!
      I sooo wanted to add more deep tones of color to accent the glow of the pewter tone!

      Also wish I’d returned to the charcoal study with this project as messy as it deemed in the past.

    11. I love that George Inness painting. Thank you for this wonderful article dear Elisabeth as always so generous and so helpful.

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