Know Your Values: Speed and Light with Versatile Indigo

Know Your Values: Speed and Light with Versatile Indigo

Galway Marina, Watercolour by Róisín Curé

I’ve long admired the work of Miguel Herranz and Inma Serrano, and I was thrilled when they accepted my invitation to present a sketching workshop in my home town. And so, last week I was honoured to welcome them and students from across Europe to Galway. We spent three days, from 13th-15th July, in the practice of our passion of urban sketching. In true North Atlantic style, the sun split the stones on the day everyone arrived, only to become shy and hide until the day they all went their separate ways. After that it got really hot and sunny, but that’s the Atlantic coast for you.

For my first lesson, I wanted to demonstrate how simple and powerful a tool one blue-grey colour (indigo or Payne’s grey) can be to convey values when used to advantage. If you don’t have much time but really want to produce something dramatic, understanding values to convey light and shade is a great tool in your kit. The above sketch of boats in Galway Marina is a good example of using values quickly and effectively: more on that later.

Thursday afternoon was my first time with the group. You never know what level your students are at when you teach, and so I assume nothing and hope that those who have already explored that particular topic won’t be bored. One of my fellow instructors was in my group – we each had two sessions free – so I was especially conscious that I may be preaching to the converted.

However, if I was going to preach, I was in the right place. I chose to bring the group into St. Nicholas’s Church in Galway City; it’s a medieval church, full of stone pillars, stone carvings and plaques and a very ancient stone baptismal font. Such a monochromatic interior was the ideal venue to put the subtle use of values to the test.

I started with explaining that one colour can be used with varying degrees of intensity. The students draw six to eight rectangles on watercolour paper. Pen or pencil, it doesn’t matter, as long as the ink is waterproof.

Value chart, Watercolour by Róisín Curé

The first shape is left unpainted. The second and remaining shapes have one light layer of paint applied, evenly and not too wet. When this first layer is dry, the third and remaining shapes have a second layer applied, and so on:

The last rectangle has black ink, just to show that if the situation really, really requires jet black (it has to be critical!) then you can use it.

There isn’t much difference between some of the shapes but you get the idea. Some of the comments showed me that this was a useful exercise, and that I was right not to overestimate the level of experience in the group.
“I never knew so many colours could be made from just one!”
“Do you let the layers dry in between?” [Yes. Otherwise you won’t build up the depth, or worse, lift the layer underneath.] “I’m making my first layer too dark.”
“I’ve never used indigo, it’s perfect for shadows.”

Then the group went to various parts of the church to put their knowledge into practice. I reminded them to only use unpainted white paper for bits that were in strong sunlight (that white paper is as important a painting tool as any colour!). Here are some of the things they painted, which had no colour as such, and which required the subtle use of values:

A large stone celtic crucifix (headstone)
The ancient baptismal font, which was very ornate
Some filigree stonework

I was very happy with the students’ pride in the results they produced. One or two of them were happily surprised, which is the best feeling for a teacher.

Of course, like all drawing and painting, this lesson comes with a caveat. Use your eyes! You need to look hard and honestly at the relative depths of colours in order to get the most out of using values. If you can’t decide which is darker and which is lighter, then squint at your subject and they will pop out at you.

For my own demo I painted an appliqué banner which hung in the Church. Although it had many colours, I wanted show how they could be translated into “black and white” – that is, indigo and white.

Banner in St. Nicks, Watercolour by Róisín Curé

I put zero layers (white) for the white bits: one layer for the yellow: two for green, three for blue, four for red and five for black. I didn’t use black ink at all. These assignations are a bit arbitrary but I emphasise that it was for demonstration purposes.

So far, so academic. But what’s the use of all of this? There are two main uses. One is that you can convey light and shade very effectively with one colour. The second is speed. There’s no colour change, so you won’t be cleaning your brush very much. And of course the fact that there are fewer colours means you’ll get finished more quickly. Sometimes that’s very important…

Speed was very important to me yesterday. My husband Marcel had a birthday two days ago, but between teaching, family commitments and baking, I didn’t have time to paint him a card, and I always paint birthday card (in fact, the first time I bought a card I nearly fell over when I saw how much it was). I didn’t feel right about not painting one for dear Marcel, so I took advantage of my trip into town yesterday to see Miguel and Inma on their journey back to Spain, and spent half an hour at Galway Marina. It would have been a full hour or even more, but the change pocket in my car had been raided the day before, and I didn’t have change for parking. After scrabbling around on the floor of my car in front of a funeral party for fifteen minutes I found the precious ten cent coin that would bring my total to €1.50, enough for an hour. I had a couple of tasks to do and by the time I sat down I only had about forty minutes to sketch, as the clampers are very enthusiastic in that car park. I had to work fast. For once the weather cooperated: I was beautifully warm and my paper didn’t blow away.

There’s a saying that makes people in sailing circles laugh. “If you want to know what it’s like to own a yacht,” they say, “stand under a cold shower and tear up fifty-euro notes.” My husband and I decided to put this to the test the expensive way, so about a month ago we bought a 30-foot, 80-year-old timber sailing boat. I wanted to paint a nautical theme for his birthday card. Voilà! Thanks to some speedy sketching (with a Sailor pen until it clogged, followed by a Noodlers Acrylic) and the use of indigo, I managed to paint a card that I knew he’d like.

Marcel's card, Watercolour by Róisín Curé

If indigo or Payne’s grey aren’t already part of your repertoire, give them a try!

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