Let the dark areas of your painting be dark and your light areas be really light. Creating dramatic contrast makes a painting feel more real and has life to it. This is why I will often turn up the contrast in my reference photo using a filter before I begin painting.
When I start out a painting, after I have found my outlines and general shapes in grayscale, I will put in my darkest darks. This gives me a base to work from. Then I will create a complementary color wash that will serve as a mid-tone to build my painting on. Once I have my darks and mid-tones in, I will push my way towards my brightest brights.
I think sometimes students get afraid to have these big jumps in their paintings so they have a tendency to mush everything together. This just makes mud though and takes away the impact that the piece could have. I know that blending can be so tempting but my best advice when you find yourself doing it is to stop and walk away from the painting for a while. Maybe you need a break that will give you fresh eyes.
When you really think about it, before your even begin your painting, your surface and paints have already limited the contrast you are capable of actually producing. Let me explain. The brightest white paint you could possibly put on your canvas still isn’t as bright as someone shining a light right in your eyes in real life, right? On the opposite end, the darkest black paint you could possibly mix up will still not be as dark when placed on your panel as a dark closet with no light at all. Because we have these forces working against us, we need to overemphasize the contrast in order to create a 3-dimensional effect on a 2-dimensional surface.
Now, this is important. This does not mean that you should put dramatic darks and lights everywhere in your painting. In fact, there is usually only one darkest spot and one brightest spot in the whole piece so use them wisely. If we add dramatic highlights to everyone, then we lose the impact that they are capable of. It will be like Christmas every day. Save them for where it really counts and the same is true for darks.
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