Questions regarding image value design

  • Hi, everyone
    I have been thinking about the principle of "having a clear value design". I remember all foundation classes taught by any of the SVS teachers talk about this: have a clear silhouette; think big shapes; ask simple questions like "is it light object on a dark background or vise versa"; make the image readable in a stamp size, etc.

    I wonder if anyone have examples that break this rule on purpose, and work really well. I paid very much attention to this particular principle in my own image design. But I also felt I was following a routine, and wondering if there is reasons to break this principle sometimes, and why/how to do that?

    I happen to see 2 images on my IG feeds, both from very popular artists. When I saw these 2 images, a number of questions pops up in my mind:

    1. Would these images work better or worse with more value contrast between the main subjects and the background?
    2. Why the artists choose to not emphasise the silhouettes so much in these particular images?

    So I did a quick paint-over on these two images to add a bit more contrast to the subjects and the background. I uploaded the black and white version here as well since the topic is mainly about value design.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    painting study_color.jpg

    painting study_b&w.jpg

  • @xin-li I have struggled with this very issue, but to me, the images work just as well without certain key areas relying on value contrast because those areas use the warm vs cool colors instead. The Campion image has lots of black and white contrast, but then uses red for the taller figure. The Heikala image uses the gold wheat-looking grass to connect to her hair bending the other way to bring out the image gently from the background. The latter is a more subtle effect, and it does seem intentional, like she is meant to have a sort of symbiosis with her environment as she confronts the viewer. It seems to me that you can bend the rules with value if you pull things out for the viewer with color.

    So with both images, if you use the value the way you did, it gives the characters a different relationship with their environments - the person and child look to have a tunnel through the woods, and the witch is not as merged with her expansive landscape. So I think it depends on the message and story to figure out whether to use color or value.

  • Pro

    @xin-li This is such an interesting topic! Ultimately value contrast is about readability, and as @carolinebautista brilliantly explains this can be achieved other ways sometimes. With the witch being so central, it's hard to miss her, and in Pascal's natural wood environment, the bright coats stand out very much. And then of course, in some cases readability is not the artist's goal. Just yesterday I was thinking about how to make images less crowded and messy, more clear to direct the eye where you need it to be, and I thought about the Where is Waldo books where the pages being crowded and Waldo being hard to spot is the whole point!

    And then sometimes even professional talented artists can mess up, so it will sometimes happen that an illustration has values that are not 100% on point but it's not intentional, just not their best work. In your examples though, it's fascinating to see how both image still work despite not having big value contrasts. Your edited version also work beautifully as well!

  • @carolinebautista @NessIllustration Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I agree that intention is the key. But I still wonder if images which have a clear value structure tend to be more eye-catching in general. But maybe sometimes, being eye-catching is not the artist's intention at all.

    @NessIllustration I agree that value contrast is really about readability - can you read what the character is doing and feeling? can you read the atmosphere of the world she is in?

    I still do not know which approach I like better regarding to the 2 images I picked up. My tendency is definitely leaning towards high contrast images. But I am open to explore, and open to see more images that are doing the opposite but works very well for their intention.

  • SVS OG

    What an interesting topic @xin-li! I really struggle with this during the color study phase, because I do like bright red, and depending on the surroundings (and there may be a good reason to keep the surrounding values as they are), the value of a bright red as such tends to the middle, which reduces the contrast. But as @carolinebautista points out, color can also focus the image.

    Also, this makes me think of the Impressionists, who often used high key value throughout. Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral in the Metropolitan Museum come to mind. If you took a black and white of those, you wouldn't have much contrast. I think the value argument applies most strongly in situations where people may unwittingly use little spots of high contrast that are irrelevant to the focal point and create a chaotic value pattern. But if camouflage is the point? A deer in dappled light, for example?

    As for your examples, I think the woods figure is more successful with the added value contrast, but it still gives it a slightly different feeling. For the witch, it changes the mood entirely. She looks more witchy slowly emerging from the shadow in the original.

    Hope this makes sense! Writing quickly.

  • Really good questions for a good topic.

    1. I believe that the Campion image is improved in your edit, but not necessarily because of value contrast, but because of the changes you made to facilitiate it. Essentially, I think the issue with it's composition was that there was a tree growing out of the adults head, which is kind of "don't do this in your layout: 101." That being said, the lightening you did to highlight their silhouette is nice too, and is a totally acceptable solution to the problem.

    The witch, however, is not improved in my opinion, and that's because....

    1. The artist chose not to empasise her silhouette in the image because of the desired atmosphere and mood of the piece. Backed by the dark clouds, with only a little rim light to separate her out, creates an ominous feeling, which is lost when the clouds break and shine behind her. To me, it now appears more hopeful, and less mysterious and foreboding. For the Campion image, I read the desired feel for the piece to be like a memory of the illustrator, allowing the characters to somewhat melt into their environment, getting lost in the trees, because that's what the artist is highlighting: how it felt to be in that forest on that day.

    It's kind of like what Lee White has said a few times - the value range needs to match the story and the desired effect. If we lose sight of that, it definitely can feel like we're stuck in a value and contrast routine, and to break that rut, my advice to illustrators would be to a) learn the principles and guidelines of value extremely well, so that you can then forget them, and b) approach our works more like cinematographers.

  • @xin-li I think you're right about it being eye-catching. I also think a long series of images needs certain images to be different in tone. Maybe it's a quieter moment that calls for less contrast to give the viewer a more restful moment between high contrast images that are more exciting. Maybe the variation is achieved through different compositions instead, and all are high contrast. I enjoy the idea that only a couple tools need to be used to effectively tell a story.

    I do think there can be an interesting tension in images with less contrast, especially when someone explores it to see what kind of emotional effect they might achieve. Lee White mentioned in one of the podcast episodes that he was experimenting with either high key or low key images, and I wonder what he found. Anyway, I will be looking at the unpublished picturebook makers showcase with these questions in mind.

  • @carolinebautista I love your intepretation on a series images needs certain images to be different in tone. I will pay more close attension to this when analysing the next picturebook. I was looking at the showcase as well. I was really inspired and moltivated to do a book dummy for submition next year. The works displayed there are the direction I want to my work to go. I have decided to keep on my shcedule one peronal book dummy next year 🙂

    By the way, do you know if there is a way to access the full dummy on the unpublished showcase? I really want to read every book that is on that showcase, but I can only preview 2 pages for each book.

  • @LauraA I will look up Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on the topic.

  • @ajillustrates thank you for sharing your thoughts. I kind of feel like I am stuck in a value and contrast routine - that is why I started thinking about questions like this. I never believed there is any principle in the art-making process that is universal. But I also was not sure how to go about to break this principle.
    I guess I felt the need of expanding my expression: I want to be able to paint different atmospheres, emotions. Maybe now it is time to let go of thinking too much about the value, and see what happens.

    But how to approach our work more like cinematographers? any thoughts?

  • @xin-li I think the first step is to consider which films or television shows speak to you on an emotional level. Then, examine the visuals for what is contributing to that emotional atmosphere. For example, and since it's almost halloween, I'm thinking about some of my favorite thrillers. Most of them are shot with low-key lighting, have desaturated colors, or may even be color graded into the cool color spectrum. But if I think about my favorite comedies, most of them are lit to be high-key and are in the warmer color spectrum. These choices help to reinforce the kind of mood that the filmmakers want.

    Here's a link with some bite-sized info on how cinematographers/videographers/photographers approach choices in value and contrast in their work:

  • Pro

    @xin-li It's funny you say that, I studied film animation in which cinematography is a really important topic obviously. I think about cinematography a lot when I draw, especially to compose my images. I don't know if it actually makes my images better or not, but I often think of the images for a book as "shots" of a movie, especially for framing. Framing is one key component in film and animation. I'll think "Uhmm I've been putting in too many full shots in a row, I'll mix it some medium shots and close-ups." I think it's really interesting how different arts communicate with each other. Although I'm not animating anymore, animation frequently teaches me things about illustration, and sometimes illustration teaches me things about animation. I've heard musicians, dancers, etc make the same remarks: knowledge of one often helps them with other types of arts.

  • @ajillustrates thank you so much for the link. I was not very familiar with the term high-key and low-key image. Seems like both types of images reduce the value contrast.

    Study movies sound like a very fun idea to do. To me, picturebook as a media is closer to movies, than comic or wall art for example.

    @NessIllustration now that you mentioned about framing, I remembered a short seminar I too about film-making back in design school. I remember I did a keyframe analysis of a Chinese art-house movie for the assignment. My teacher pointed out to me how different the aesthetics are from that movie compared to the western movies made in the same time period. That movie used many symmetrical compositions, which is almost at the borderline of being something you should avoid. But for the theme of the movie, the symmetrical composition works really really well. So again, it is all about intention.

  • @xin-li Hello! This is a very interesting topic! I very much loved the discussion. I am also constantly thinking about how value and colours play a role in the composition to convey emotions.

    Do you know the book "The Visual Story" by Bruce Block?

    Chapter 6 is all about colour. I found it fantastic. He talks about exention and interaction of colour. There are some suggested movies to watch at the end. Also, the whole book is great to revise how the different visual elements help to convey different emotions in sequential art (as you said, for example how we use space: using deep space in tense moments... and keeping flat space for the rest... etc).

    I also enjoyed a lot "Color" by Betty Edwards. She has exercises on color interactions and emotions.

    I am still going through them, but so far they are quite interesting!

  • @xin-li I put in my information to become a member to see what their response would be, and it was discouraging. It is generally only agents and publishers that are members of that site, especially those that are active at book fairs - the Frankfurt book fair seems to be related to this initiative. Since I don't have any connections to the publishing industry, I have to make do with the publisher videos and two spreads from each. I have a goal of putting together a portfolio for scbwi's winter conference, and this picturebook makers showcase is the second goal for me for 2021 (this year's was due July 25, so I am planning the same amount of time for next year). Although of course this would be a long shot, it's simply what I admire and want my work to be, so I feel that to participate is important. 🙂

    The publisher videos are very helpful; they make it very clear how experimental many of these concepts are and that although they aren't necessarily 'publishable' (the FAQs or something pointed out that it was often personal preference and not intention to publish that garnered a vote) experimental ideas can take center stage and gain appreciation from the industry and that is very exciting for me! One of the books, the Nothing, seems more like a horror story, and I find that fascinating - it got a lot of votes, but may not necessarily be acquired. I think it is set up so that the publishers can approach anyone in the showcase for other work as well.

    The competition will be increasingly more difficult since they opened it up to anyone. It used to be restricted to illustrators/authors with no more than three books published. But because I admire the work so much, I would like to have it as a goal every year: to fully visualize a story that truly innovates with the picturebook format. Perhaps you can ask your agent to request membership and view the stories that way; as it is, I am going to try to follow up in other ways, especially with researching the publishers listed. I would like to see how experimental some of them are with what they publish.

    I think that with the distinct visual styles represented, it would be so fantastic to read the story and imagine where they can take the finished spreads!! Of course, it would be more instructive with composition and layout, rather than use of color, but it would still help to see how the finished spreads use color for a particular point in the story. I hope you can gain access!

  • @xin-li Interesting exercise. I think about composition and framing a lot in my work and I personally think that's improved in your versions. The first one especially, since the characters are so small in the frame. For the Heikala one, I think your edits do improve readability and make her silhouette stand out but I agree with @ajillustrates that it changes the mood a bit, since part of the atmosphere was to have an overall dark image. If the artist wanted the character to blend in with the background and feel like part of the storm, then I think that was achieved. I personally prefer the contrast so if I wanted it to stay dark and moody, I would have maybe made purple clouds behind her instead of making them look lighter and happier, but keep the desired separation and silhouette.

  • @Melanie-Ortins thank you for your sharing your thoughts. I was talking with another artist about this paint-over yesterday. He said that I was probably on to something, but his solution was very different from mine. For example with Heikala's piece, he said the problem is not the silhouette readability, but too much contrast on the background. The highlight of the clouds becomes distracting (especially the large light area around the same height as the head of the character), taking attention away from the rim light on the main character.

    This got me really interested. My current theory is that the basic principle of value design stands true, no matter you are working with a low-key image, or high-key image. The image can have very little contracts overall, but the principle of having the most contrast on the focal point still applies.

    @tenmei I will definitely check out the books you mentioned.

    @carolinebautista I also saw the member-only thing at dPICTUS. I did not even try to apply because I thought it was only for publisher and agents, hehe. I decide to participate in the contest next year as well. I started getting client work this year. All of a sudden, I do not have space for personal projects anymore. I felt it is important to always keep a personal project and this seems like a very good way for me to have an external deadline. Now I can treat my personal project the same way as a client-based project.

  • @xin-li Yeah, I agree that value design is very important, and the area with the most contrast definitely makes a natural focal point. I like doing very detailed illustrations with lots of little elements and patterns so value contrast and colour contrast are super important for readability and not making the image too busy.

    Although I suppose there are exceptions to every rule. Like if the character was meant to look more like a silhouette? But I guess in that case it should be the darkest thing and create contrast in that way. And sometimes there are 2 or multiple focal points in an image but that can be hard to pull off. I'd say that these rules are important to learn as a guideline but at the end of the day, you have to use the tools that are most important for the image.

  • @xin-li yes, I got a little carried away with it, and of course wouldn't use someone else's access when that would be unfair to the illustrators included in the showcase. Oh well. It's very inspiring work!

    But these images feel so unresolved for me now! It is possible that they are not as thought out and refined because they are not in a series of images. I do tend to think in terms of sequential images because that can really solidify what one individual image needs to do really well for me. Usually that means my concepts don't communicate. 😞 But I do like to work with a clear function for the image, beyond just what feeling it should give.
    But here, the Heikala value emphasis seems to me to be on the cat and the witch - when you reduce it to a tiny thumbnail, this reads most - but the warm vs. cool color interpretation doesn't hold up when random parts of the storm clouds are emphasized for no real reason. It would make more sense if the highlights you mention were not such a warm color. And the Campion image places so much emphasis on the warm light on the snow in the foreground and that makes less and less sense to me. The man and child didn't go through there otherwise there would be tracks. Are they meant to be far away but feel more accessible without thick trees?

    I do think there are successful images that do not have a strong emphasis. Maybe sometimes a feeling can be communicated better without a focal point.

  • I think it is just a way of being measured. If the artists had used more contrasting values, the characters would have appeared separated from their environment. Plus, the landscape would have looked unnatural.
    To me, the rule is still true, it is the degree of exercising it that changes.

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