Landscape values are easier to understand
when viewed as falling into four major divisions or zones.
Reading values in landscapes is somewhat different from reading
values in other subjects. All subjects have a light source, but the source in a
landscape - the illuminated dome of the sky - is part of the subject. This
often leads those new to painting the landscape to misread the values and not
establish enough contrast between the land and the sky, which is usually
the biggest value contrast in the painting. This, in turn, leads to an
incorrect reading of the ground plane, which is often made too light. If these
basic divisions get mixed up, it becomes very difficult to maintain a
convincing sense of landscape space.
Landscape values are much easier to understand if they are viewed
as falling into four major divisions or zones. Robert F. Carlson in his classic
"Guide to Landscape Painting" lays out his Theory of Angles. The theory
essentially says that major landscape elements - skies, trees, hills, ground -
are on different planes. The angle of the plane in relation to the sun
determines how much light it receives, which in turn determines its value. For
example, the flat ground, being directly under the sun, receives the most light
(after the sky), while other areas, like trees and hills, which are more
upright, receive less light.
Of course, these value divisions are not absolutes. There is some
overlap between the divisions. For instance, there are times when the lightest
values on the ground do compete with the value of the sky, or the light side of
a tree is the same value as the ground. There are also extraordinary conditions
which defy the zones entirely: snow or desert scenes, in which the ground can
be lighter in value than the sky; the sun-struck side of a light-colored
building; or the sunburst that breaks through dark clouds and strikes the
ground after a storm. The point is that in knowing how the value divisions
generally apply to the landscape, the value zones in any landscape can be
Value divisions in the landscape. Landscape values fall into four
broad value divisions - light, half-light, half-dark, and full-dark. Although
not absolute, these divisions are consistent enough to serve as a reliable
guide to check value assignments at the start of a painting. There is also some
overlap between the divisions, but the overall value of the sky remains lighter
than the overall value of the land.
1 - LIGHT
(sky) - The sky is almost always the lightest value zone in the landscape and
accounts for what is usually the largest value contrast in the painting -
between the sky and the land. This holds true even on cloudy or overcast days.
HALF-LIGHT (horizontal planes) - The ground is a horizontal plane. Being
directly under the sky, it receives more light than upright elements like trees
and hills, but it is still darker than the sky.
3 - HALF-DARK
(slanting/sloping planes) - The next darkest zone is slanting planes, like
hills. They receive less light than the ground, and are therefore darker than
the ground, but lighter than more vertical elements.
FULL-DARK (vertical planes) - Vertical elements, such as trees and architecture
receive the least amount of light and so are usually the darkest values in the
painting. Upright elements, of course, can be made up of two or more values, a
light side and a shadow side. Depending on the color of an element, its light
side may be close in value to the slanting planes or the ground plane.
Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein
Air and Studio Practice
, Chapter 4, Value Relationships
Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein
Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill,
2009). He also hosts an educational blog about landscape painting. Find him on Facebook and YouTube.