In this article I would like to go over the creation of what are called the “value plans of depth.” These are a different set of value plans than the ones being created by my co-author, Daniel Novotny, who is taking the “Whitney” pattern set and working with those in his part of this duel article.

What are value plans of depth? Simply put, we are going to take a subject and break it into multiple plans of depth from foreground to background, trying to place the subject matter onto one or more separate planes. The subject must be broken up into simple shapes and then arranged so that when we add in our values, which will also be minimal, we can create an illusion of depth of space. Let’s see how this is done.

Reference Photograph

Here is the subject photograph. When I look at this particular scene, I can see three to four planes of depth, depending on how I would choose to divide things up. For this example, let’s try four separate planes of depth which will be…

  1. The sky as a background. It’s actually better to think about this as if this were a stage in an opera house. The “backdrop” for this scene is the sky, which in this photo has washed out to a rather light blue, almost white.
  2. The distant water. Even though the water will always be horizontal relative to the earth, we can only draw and paint flat shapes on a two dimensional piece of paper. Thinking this way gives us a vertical shape that has height and width, as we have no actual depth to work with. Remember, in art, depth is an illusion.
  3. The villa. For our purposes, we will take the entire villa, walls, etc., and reduce them down to one large shape. Later on, once we have settled on a particular value pattern, we could then look at the individual shapes within this large mass. However, that operation is beyond the scope of this article.
  4. The foreground tree mass. We’ll take all of the foliage and create a very large mass shape, which can be broken up later on when we take our design further (same as the villa).

What this looks like visually is this…

Above is the basic sketch of the scene. You’ll note that I’ve drawn in the villa as separate shapes for later on in the process, but we are only going to use the “big” shape for the rest of the article.

This is how the shapes look if we create them as “puzzle” pieces. You can see how this breaks down into our sky shape (#1), the water shape (#2), the villa (#3), and the foreground foliage shape (#4). Each of these is placed on what is a separate plane in depth as shown in the next image.

Imagine each shape on a separate piece of glass. When you stack them up, you will get the entire scene, but each piece of glass represents a distance back into relative space. We now have our four shapes.

Since we have four shapes, we obviously need four values…

You’ll notice that my darkest value isn’t an absolute dark, or black. The reason for this is that I want to reserve my darkest darks for accents at the end of the painting process. I use the absolute darks for things like lines, dots, windows, stuff like that.

With four shapes and four values, the question now becomes, “…how many different value patterns or combinations are there?” That’s simple math as the calculation is 4! (four factorial), or the equation of 4x3x2x1 = 24. With four shapes and four values there are twenty-four possible value arrangements that can be created. Let’s take the first set.

Using our “light” value (white in this case), as the value for shape #1, we would then get six possible variations using the other three values in alternation.

Each value pattern can suggest various lighting situations and color possibilities with the sky shape being the “light” shape in all of these variations.

What happens when we change the sky shape (#1), to the next value down? Let’s see.

Our sky is now one value darker and the other values again get shuffled around in another six combinations.

Right about now you are probably asking the question, “…what happens inside each of these shapes and how are the individual “things” like trees, roofs, etc., going to be described?” It is a good question and the answer is simple. Within each value (light, light midtone, midtone, and dark midtone), there are going to be what are called sub-values. For example, there can be at least three sub-values for each base value. That will allow us to show and describe the individual aspects of a particular “thing.” For example, any building in the villa can be described by using three sub-values describing the lighting situation that we can set in place for the scene. Remember, we don’t have to copy the scene “as is.” We, as artists, are free to design and paint this scene any way we like.

Okay, let’s continue rotating through the respective value choices.

The above now shows what our scene might look like with the sky shape (#1), as the center midtone. Any of these six value plans would work and could convey a different “message” or “idea” that the artist would like to show to the viewer.

Now for our last set.

In this last set, our sky has grown dark as if there might be an impending storm, or you could think about a possible “night” scene as well. This is the point of creating these value patterns. They give you options for expressing how you feel about a subject as well as offering you possibilities that you may not have had on location.

For example, if you visited this location at noon, you might well think that was the only way that you could express what you have seen. Not so. We can take the average daytime scene and transform it into a night scene just by swapping the values around a bit. We can turn day into night, sunshine into rain (or snow), and even bring in specific weather and lighting conditions just by playing around with the value possibilities.

If I go out to a location and get a basic line sketch done, then I can bring that sketch back to the studio and create dozens of possible ideas from it. I am not forced to accept “what is” or “was” at the scene or location. The photograph is just a reference image. Nothing here is set in stone. You do not have to draw or paint the scene the way it was. That is just nonsense.

What we can do as artists is evaluate our choices and then pick from the best idea(s), and then create our painting(s). And best of all, from one simple sketch of four shapes and four values, I now have twenty-four possible paintings that I can make.

That is “money in the bank” for me.

Thanks for reading and I hope that you enjoyed this article and will also read Daniel’s article on this same scene using the “Whitney” value patterns.


  1. Marylin Smith May 16, 2018 at 00:10

    Thank you so much for that – extremely helpful!

    1. Daniel Novotny May 16, 2018 at 10:10

      Our pleasure Marylin, stay tuned for more coming very soon.



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