Quick access to all 5 parts in the “Whitney Patterns” series

  1. Whitney Patterns Part 1
  2. Whitney Patterns Part 2: Patterns #1 & 2
  3. Whitney Patterns Part 3: Patterns #3 & 4
  4. Whitney Patterns Part 4: Pattern #5 – Gradation
  5. Whitney Patterns Part 5: Pattern #6 – All-Over Pattern

In the two previous articles we managed to tackle four out of our six Whitney patterns. Today’s topic then is pattern #5 – Gradation:

  1. A piece of darker value in lighter values.
  2. A piece of lighter value in darker values.
  3. Large dark area and small light area in middle values.
  4. Large light area and small dark area in middle values.
  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.

I decided to tackle gradating pattern in a separate post since it requires a bit more space and explanation, so let’s get right to it.

Before we proceed, here’s the reference image and the sketch again.

Reference Photograph; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY
Reference line drawing; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

Pattern #5: Gradation

The gradating pattern can be a tough one. Gradation is the gradual transition from light to dark. It is really not that easy to incorporate and it does require a suitable subject to be used to its full potential. Although Edgar Whitney says that we must first create good pattern, fitting our subject into it, it is reasonable to expect some subjects being more or less suitable for any particular pattern. Part of being a consciously composing artist is to, in fact, evaluate this beforehand and select pattern that strengthens the inherent qualities of the subject. While I don’t think our subject today necessarily lends itself to be gradated, for the sake of our demonstration I think it can be made to work quite well.

When talking about gradation, especially in regard to watercolor, usually we imagine a very smooth transition from either warm to cool, or in our case today, light to dark. When such transition is put down on paper it is called a gradated wash. But that is only one way to go about gradation. I find that subjects that can be fit into this kind of gradated pattern are few and far between. There’s, of course, another way, which I call a “shape-by-shape gradation”. In such case the painting’s gradation is created by allocating solid value to individual shapes, not creating smooth transition throughout. Therefore the shapes, when intervaled correctly, and seen as an overall pattern, read as a gradation.


“Lighthouse in Nice” is one of those paintings that looks so much easier to do than it actually is. You can notice how the gradation pattern works in this piece. It is a good example of some other pattern styles as well but if we only consider gradation, we can notice that our planes are gradated from light to dark from the bottom edge and up. As I said, this painting is what I call a “shape-by-shape gradation”. Although the painting is very simplified in terms of the number of present shapes, you can still notice how the value pattern progresses through each individual shape, getting darker the more it reaches the top edge of the painting.

Now let’s look at our previous example and see how it can be made into a gradated value pattern.

Gradation horizontal from top to bottom; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

The first example above shows horizontal gradation in one direction, light-dark from top to bottom. For this example I had to employ more than our usual two values to really demonstrate this problem but again, if you squint your eyes you’ll see how the individual planes recede towards the top edge of the painting. This type of gradation could potentially be used for suggesting aerial perspective, which is a phenomenon that causes the objects farther from us loose intensity of color and value. In our case here though, the real-world distance would be too close to actually make aerial perspective credible.

Gradation horizontal from bottom up; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

Now this second example is the same as above but the values are reversed. Here the front of the painting is light and it darkens as it nears the top edge. In creative composition dark value is used to bring light value forward, which is the opposite of what is used by painters following the effects of light. They usually let the value “disappear” the more it recedes from them, which of course poses some serious design issues. Instead, by placing dark value “behind” our lighter values we are bringing them forward as if pointing a limelight on them. This is a very effective way to isolate our area of interest, or simply highlight or strengthen it. Once again, the choice of subject for this particular pattern can be tricky as not all subjects can be effectively paired with it.

This brings me to what we discussed in the previous article, namely that we should always try to have a good idea in our painting supported by a good visual execution. Let’s look at our pattern above again. As we introduced a “limelight” effect on the bottom part of the picture we effectively put a great emphasis on that part of the image. What possible reason for this could we have? In what scenario this metaphor actually makes sense? Imagine a small group of people in mid- to dark-middle value on the white road in the foreground, offsetting them by a couple of rich darks representing doors on the buildings behind them. This way the “limelight” would point on the people in the street, making for a nice story-based picture. You can see a simple version of this solution below.

Gradation horizontal from bottom up, with the introduction of “story” into the painting, utilizing the visual configuration to support it; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

On the image above you can clearly feel the attraction towards the highlighted lower part of the picture. This would be much more effective in an actual painting with color, of course, but this example should demonstrate quite well my thoughts proposed above.

Gradation horizontal in both directions; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

This last example shows gradation in two directions, both horizontal. Notice how our tones simultaneously approache light from both top and bottom side of the picture. Now one idea that comes to mind is that such pattern could be used to play around with the idea of naturalistic illumination. Let’s say a cloud is covering part of the sky, throwing the front portion of the painting into shadow, while the farther side is still bathed in sunshine. Now let’s not get distracted by shade and shadow and all the naturalistic effects of light, effectively loosing sight of the bigger picture. Remember that we are working with the idea of illumination, not actual illumination. That we won’t get lost can be assured by learning to model our planes, not copy what natural light dictates. The values don’t need to read as they would on the spot, in fact they can’t, otherwise our pattern would get all broken up and the whole point of designing our pattern would be pointless.

There’s, of course, more still to gradating patterns. But what we discussed here should give you a good enough idea of the whys and hows so you can explore them further on your own.



  1. Marylin Smith May 24, 2018 at 00:23

    Thank you Daniel – this is very helpful, although I must admit I was struggling to get what you were saying when you started the series. I’m glad I put the effort in, because I get it now!

    1. Daniel Novotny May 24, 2018 at 11:43

      Hi Marylin,

      Thank you for commenting. It was difficult to convey correctly what the series is going to be about in the first post, without going too far. Paradoxically, it would be much easier now that it’s almost over. Either way I, too, am happy that you kept reading. I’m just finishing the final Part 5 so stay tuned for one more. It’ll be worth it!



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