In my previous article about value keys I mentioned that design is all about manipulating values, including entire value keys, and that it is our responsibility to be conscious of the effects we want to achieve. From such mindset arising is a complete freedom of expression. However, to avoid anarchy, that is freedom without order, we need to look at things in context – we need to see the bigger picture. This is where value rhythm comes in.

While being conscious of value key in a painting is already a step in the right direction, value pattern, or as I like to say, value/tonal rhythm, is taking into consideration not only the specific value key, but the painting’s overall abstract configuration – the rhythm that is created when we step back, squint our eyes and look at the painting as an abstract set of value shapes – a mosaic if you will. In other words, pattern is the abstract underlying structure of the painting. Our job is to assure that we don’t rely on chance when it comes to how pleasing this structure is in any one of our paintings.

That being said, and to balance things out, I also want to point out that tonal pattern doesn’t necessarily need to be our main focus in each and every painting. Some subjects may require much more conscious implementation than others. In those that don’t, we can embrace the suggested pattern. And it’s definitely a good idea, mainly in the more representational work, to do so and strengthen the inherent quality of the subject instead of fighting against it. Avoid reinventing the wheel if you can. Unless we’re making an entirely abstract piece, to some degree the pattern will always be suggested by the subject. And that suggestion can be, in fact, considered the essence of the subject.

Now one last thing I want to discuss before we proceed to consider some examples of patterns is that there is just so many patterns that we work with. The rest are probably just variations of these few main patterns. Wiser and more experienced artists came up with some ideas already, and so I am going to cite here a list of six patterns as proposed by Edgar Whitney in his book Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting:

  1.  A piece of darker value in lighter values.
  2. A piece of lighter value in darker values.
  3. A small light area and a large dark area in midtones.
  4. A small dark area and a large light area in midtones.
  5. Gradation, in any direction, up, down, or across.
  6. “All-over pattern” as in textile design – an equal surface tension or visual strength throughout the rectangle.

Now without further ado, let’s see some paintings and actual patterns to go with them. Imagine these hanging on a gallery wall. When you look up-close, the image is recognizable in full detail but the danger of viewing it this way (and creating in this way especially) is that we tend to miss the bigger picture. When we step back, however, we’ll be able to recognize a bit more of how the painting is constructed. The big gestures start to emerge as the detail recedes. We see the big movements. We see the pattern.

As examples I’m going to use paintings that are on the more extreme ends of the spectrum. This way I hope it’ll be easier for you to discern these patterns. The first example is my painting titled “Night Time”. If I had to categorize it I’d say this is an example of what Edgar Whitney defines as “piece of lighter value in darker values”.


This painting, I think, is quite easy to read as regard to pattern because of the dramatic value range. Even still, following is a black & white image to further assist with pattern recognition.

Painting “Night Time” converted to black & white eliminates color as a factor, revealing more the tonal pattern of the piece

The black & white image should be of help in discerning the pure tonal pattern of the painting. As I mentioned before, pattern is the overall abstract configuration of value shapes. Therefore don’t necessarily look for a hidden image that will be magically revealed when color is removed. This actually can happen – for example a dominant value may be creating a shape of the letter L, a T-shape or a pattern similar to a cross, etc. – but I find it to be a bit more rare and dependent on the level of abstraction of the subject depicted.

If you still can’t quite see the pattern in the image above, here’s a final example which should make things crystal clear.

Painting converted to bit planes eliminates not only color but middle value range entirely

Now the image above shows exactly what this painting’s tonal pattern/rhythm is all about. It is a bit exaggerated, of course. However, it shows well the linkage of the light shapes, which are the main players in this painting. Notice the interaction between light and dark. Notice how the white shape travel through the painting and connects throughout. Notice the positive and negative shapes. Always notice the positive vs. negative shape interaction.

The second painting I selected as an example is titled “All is Possible”.


The painting as you can see from the grayscale version below could be defined, as per Edgar Whitney’s definition, as “a small light area and a large dark area in midtones”.

One things I want to stress is that always try to feel the weight of your shapes. Visual tensions are created among the shapes of the painting depending on their size and value. We play these against each other to balance out the composition.

“A small light area and a large dark area in midtones”

The third example is my painting “Angular Melody”. This is a more obvious pattern with a very contained piece of white.


The following two images should make the pattern stand out quite well.

Grayscale conversion shows already the pattern quite well
Bit plane conversion

This bit plane conversion reveals the pattern exceptionally well and shows exactly what I’ve been talking about this whole time, which is that the pattern is an abstract underlying configuration of the painting’s tonal structure.

My next example is a painting titled “Hazy Morning”. This painting is a bit more tricky as I suppressed contrast in this painting by limiting the tonal range.

Grayscale conversion

Even though perhaps harder to read, even in grayscale, when we do our best to reduce the tonality of the painting to two values only (which is an important skill I recommend practicing), we can very easily make the pattern emerge as shown below.

Bit plane conversion

My final example is a painting titled “Rooftop Jumble”. This is one of my all-time favorites. However, this is quite difficult as for pattern reading and that’s why I left it for last.


The reason why this one may seem harder to read than the other examples is because this is what would be defined as “all-over pattern”.

Grayscale conversion shows values only

Even in grayscale this painting is quite chaotic, or rather busy. That doesn’t mean bad design necessarily.

Bit plane conversion shows only two values and helps revealing the tonal rhythm further

Notice how the bit plane conversion helps with revealing the all-over value pattern. All-over pattern, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean tonal anarchy. When you look at the grayscale version you can see that there are structurally sound decisions that make the painting work as a whole, namely the white shape linkage as well as directional thrusts (white dominant thrust is vertical, supportive white is slanted, dark shape is horizontal for balance, etc.). This way there is sound structure but still the painting is made fun, busy, exciting with the use of all-over pattern.

You may have noticed from the several previous articles on design I published on my blog that each design element can, and should be, considered as a pattern, or rhythm. In case of value, pattern is found in the intervals of value shapes and how they are spaced and grouped throughout the painting. What tensions do they create? How do they feel? This is not something that is learned as a simple fact, this is something that is learned as a concept and then deeper understood with prolonged practice. In the end, as much as pattern-making is an intellectual skill, there is a significant amount of estimation that goes into it. What I mean is that we feel the tensions within our picture in our gut. We must learn to listen to these feelings. Consider how often a healthy person stumbles and drops on the ground in his everyday life? Not that often. That’s because we subconsciously let our body work on the most basic level without thinking about it. Our body feels the forces of our environment and immediately makes the necessary adjustments so we stay in balance. In painting, similarly, we want to trust our gut. Feel the intervals, feel the weights, the pulls, and strive for balancing them out based on how it feels to you. If nothing else, that’s a subject enough for most every painting.

And that’s all for my discussion on tonal value. Despite tackling it as a 4-part series there are still important topics I couldn’t include here as I think this already may be a bit overwhelming material to study. The ideas not included mostly build upon this knowledge though and need to be dealt with separately. These may be discussed later. If not, they’re going to be most certainly included in my upcoming book, so stay tuned.

If you enjoyed this series please let me know in the comments down below, share, subscribe, etc. you know what to do, spread the word. You can also purchase the paintings shown in this article if you wish. Thanks for reading, following my blog and work and I hope your work is going to benefit from what you’ve learned here.



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  1. Mike Hagan April 4, 2018 at 17:04

    This post is one of your best because of your examples that drive the point home. Thank you. Keep up the good work. I will support when I am able. Appreciate your connection to one of the best teachers in Edgar Whitney. Your last piece would be one of my favorites, too.

    1. Daniel Novotny April 7, 2018 at 13:00

      Hello Mike,

      And thank you for the words of appreciation. Glad you enjoyed.



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