Start your free trial now, and begin learning software, business and creative skills—anytime, anywhere—with video instruction from recognized industry experts.

Start Your Free Trial Now

Artist at Work: Creating a Visual Hierarchy

with Mary Jane Begin

Video: Establishing value

Learn to use tone, color, and glazing to establish a visual hierarchy in your artwork and designs.
please wait ...
Watch the Online Video Course Artist at Work: Creating a Visual Hierarchy
Video Duration: 0s34m 54s Beginner Sep 20, 2013

Viewers: in countries Watching now:

View Course Description

The human eye perceives objects in a scene in order of contrast. Tone, color, and glazing are used to establish this "visual hierarchy" in your art. Join award-winning illustrator and Rhode Island School of Design professor Mary Jane Begin back in her studio as she discusses tricks to achieve visual hierarchy. She starts by establishing value, or light and dark areas in the composition, and then shows how to use varying opacity and a limited color palette to further define the forms in a painting. Finally, learn how glazing can make your colors pop even more and shift the palette toward a warm or cool tone. Mary Jane compares traditional media to a digital workflow while using brushes, sponges, watercolors, and acrylic paint to achieve her results. These lessons can be easily migrated to digital artwork and designs using programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

Mary Jane uses the following materials in this course:

  • Arches 140 lb hot press paper
  • Tube watercolors- Winsor & Newton Cotman brand
  • Paper stumps for blending
  • Pastels- a variety of stick and pencil forms (including Conte pastel pencils)
  • Short, fat, fine-bristle Winsor & Newton #2 and #4 brushes (for scrubbing color off)
  • Sceptre Gold II sable/synthetic blend #3, #6, and #10 brushes
  • Winsor & Newton Cotman brand 25 mm/1 in. flat brush (for washes)

Mary Jane Begin

Establishing value

I'm Mary Jane Begin and welcome to the Artist At Work series. I'd like to demonstrate how creating a hierarchy of value, is critical for composing and image. Let's start with value or relative lightness or darkness of a color. The subject matter for this demonstration, will be Milton the majestic stapler. Now you can see that Milton is red and a lot of the things around Milton are quite warm. So I started with a warm ground, but that didn't really make sense because it was too close to the set-up.

There wouldn't be any color reaction. So I decided to use a green ground so there'd be complementary reaction. What I'm going to start with here is value. And what I'll be doing is actually pulling color off or subtracting color right off of the surface of the paint. And I will start with the highest light that I see which is this wonderful spot of light on Milton. It's really bright and it's sort of one those things I want to remember. That it's the highest light in the whole painting.

So I'm just going to pop that right now. So you can see it. And I'm just using water and a scrub brush. A scrub brush is just a stiff bristle brush to kind of pull off the second highlight as well. And those will be the lightest and brightest spots in the whole painting. And then, I'll pull of a little bit of color where it's sort of the most red, vibrant sort of orangy red, when I go to pain it. So it's a secondary value, it's not quite as bright or light as the first thing I did but it's light.

There's a lot of light cast on this spot. And why I'm doing this is I'm trying to create the composition with value alone. And I'm thinking about value because um, (SOUND) it's a way to establish your palette. First think about what's the value going to be. And then you can start to think about the color. I'm also referencing some paintings because I want Milton to be really majestic. I want and to feel like something that's honoured and revered and a little mysterious.

So I, pulled some paintings from the computer, some renasaince paintings. And you can see that they're lit with a single light source, just like Milton. And there like, things being pulled out of darkness. That's why this ground is really deep. The ground is made of fallow blue, a little verde green and some van dyke brown. You can see I'm pulling the layer off the back of Milton. And then I'm going to pull, I think, some of the white on the front of Milton.

I see his shape that almost looks like a mouth to me. The front of this guy. And you can see the light on the front of the stapler. There's also some light on some of the edges. So the first thing I'm focusing on really is, the form of the most important element in the piece which is the staple gun. Then I'll go to the secondary things, the cloth, which is a plaid shirt. And the brown fabric that its sitting on. But you should already be able to see that I'm establishing the highlights on this form.

And these are the skinniest little pieces of light but their kind of important so I'm going to do that first. Okay so you see that and the next thing I'll do is this cloth. Because it's a pretty important shape in the middle of the painting. It's what this form is sitting on and we need to see the light on it. Now you can use I have a variety of scrub brushes here. I'll use a bigger one for this section. And again it's just an oil-painting brush. It's allowing me to pull the color off. This is a bigger brush, so I can get more color off with it.

So I'm pulling the light with a larger brush off the front of the cloth. It's just so that I can remove more paint a little bit faster than a small brush. And I'm trying to do it so it's not as bright as the highest light but that it captures what I'm seeing in front of me. So there's also there's light on the top of this thing, there's (UNKNOWN) light hitting right here on the front of this cloth. And I'm pulling the color off and then I'm brushing it right on my Paper towel to just remove that color, because if I put that back on without doing that I'm just, reapplying the ground color.

Now I'm going to do another large shape which is this light right along here so you can see the edge of Milton. And I'm also going to think about texturing this. When you think about this sort of pretty simple texture set-up here. It's basically this very shiny object, mitten and then there's a very sort of textural plaid shirt, which is our cloth. And it's, I can imagine it's fairly soft. And it's obviously not shiny.

So I'll deal that, with that with a slightly different mark making system. then this brush. I'll have to do something else to create a different mark. Right, just pull a few more lights off here. You can see the results of this light. But it's not as, it's not as, as bright a light as what's on the top, because obviously there's less light hitting it. So what I'll do, so I'll actually take a sponge, and because this cloth is a little bit textured. More so the Milton. I'm just going to use, this to kind of blot out, a little bit of the color.

Pull it off the surface. But not pull too much off so it still feels like a shadow. So if you look at this you can start to see that I'm, I'm sort of moving the color around. I'm pulling off the water, excuse me the color with the water. And I'm trying to leave it have a little more shadow. Then what's on the top, so I don't lighten the whole thing because then it sort of loses the value system. We're trying to create a hierarchy of values from the lightest light to middle tones to the darkest area, and because there's a lot of dark in this setup and a lot of dark that I want in this painting We're just going to pull off anything from the lightest light,100 % light to about 50% value.

Okay I'll go back to the brush and I'll pull out a few lights on that cloth so you can see it. A little bit maybe on Milton over here. And here let's just get the cloth. There's something else I'd like to do with the cloth which is to, is to, pull some of this off with a textural mark. So probably I could even use this brush to kind of poke it, like you know just stab at it a little bit. Instead of doing a stroke, I'm going to do this sort of, almost like what the cloth is made of, it's a little bit toothy.

So as I try to create light, I'm just going to make it a little bit more textural so when the paint hits it, it might pick up that texture. And again, it's a little different than Mil, Milton is really smooth. And you can create textures in a painting with anything, that has a tooth, you could use a tissue, you could use a sponge, you could use a brush tip. It really, it doesn't matter. Anything that you have at your disposal. And this is a great brush for that.

If I want it to be toothier and more textural, I use a little tiny brush like this and that just makes a much smaller mark. (NOISE) And, and I could just scrub like this. But, for time's sake, I'm going to go back to the big, the big guy here, and pull off for composition and texture, all this area through here in the shirt. I'm trying to create again, a composition that works with, is the whole shape of this painting. I'm not just thinking about the spot where my focus and my attention is, I want to think about the rest of the painting too.

So I'm, and I also have to think about the value, staple gun, excuse me, stapler versus, the cloth, which is much lighter versus the shirt, the plaid shirt. Which is really light. So I have to be mindful of that as I work on this value system. And so I'm trying to find the highlights of things. But I'm also trying to think about the overall value of each separate piece. And, I think I'm almost there for the highest lights, and I probably will pull a little more light off this piece, but I'm not ready to do that yet.

So again, I probably will go in here to pull off a little more color for the value system, create a little more texture with my marks but try not to compete too much with, the staple gun. Now, I'm going to do some of these things off-stage to, to wrap this up. But basically, what I want you to understand here, is that when you're creating a piece, when you're working on something. You want to try to think about the hierarchy of light first which is the lightest light which should be probably your focal point to middle tones to something that has the, the least amount light or the, the greatest darkest value.

And make sure that you're highest contrast, which is a deep, dark to a light, is where you want the eye to go. So that's why my highest light and my darkest shadow is right here on Milton. Then as I move through the piece I'm going to find different lights and textures. I'm going to try to reduce the contrast so the eye doesn't go to the corner of the picture. It goes right here and then moves slowly across. I've also tried to pull light that's on a diagonal. So that everything isn't this horizontal shape just like Milton. That would be really boring. We want to leave the eye with light up to where Milton is.

So there, that's why this is on a diagonal to lead your eye to this spot. so I'll do some more things on this and then the next thing we'll talk about will be limited palettes and glazing.

There are currently no FAQs about Artist at Work: Creating a Visual Hierarchy.

Share a link to this course

What are exercise files?

Exercise files are the same files the author uses in the course. Save time by downloading the author's files instead of setting up your own files, and learn by following along with the instructor.

Can I take this course without the exercise files?

Yes! If you decide you would like the exercise files later, you can upgrade to a premium account any time.

Become a member Download sample files See plans and pricing

Please wait... please wait ...
Upgrade to get access to exercise files.

Exercise files video

How to use exercise files.

Learn by watching, listening, and doing, Exercise files are the same files the author uses in the course, so you can download them and follow along Premium memberships include access to all exercise files in the library.

Exercise files

Exercise files video

How to use exercise files.

For additional information on downloading and using exercise files, watch our instructional video or read the instructions in the FAQ .

This course includes free exercise files, so you can practice while you watch the course. To access all the exercise files in our library, become a Premium Member.

* Estimated file size

Are you sure you want to mark all the videos in this course as unwatched?

This will not affect your course history, your reports, or your certificates of completion for this course.

Mark all as unwatched Cancel


You have completed Artist at Work: Creating a Visual Hierarchy.

Return to your organization's learning portal to continue training, or close this page.


Upgrade to View Courses Offline


With our new Desktop App, Annual Premium Members can download courses for Internet-free viewing.

Upgrade Now

After upgrading, download Desktop App Here.

Become a member to add this course to a playlist

Join today and get unlimited access to the entire library of video courses—and create as many playlists as you like.

Get started

Already a member ?

Exercise files

Learn by watching, listening, and doing! Exercise files are the same files the author uses in the course, so you can download them and follow along. Exercise files are available with all Premium memberships. Learn more

Get started

Already a Premium member?

Exercise files video

How to use exercise files.

Ask a question

Thanks for contacting us.
You’ll hear from our Customer Service team within 24 hours.

Please enter the text shown below:

Exercise files

Access exercise files from a button right under the course name.

Mark videos as unwatched

Remove icons showing you already watched videos if you want to start over.

Control your viewing experience

Make the video wide, narrow, full-screen, or pop the player out of the page into its own window.

Interactive transcripts

Click on text in the transcript to jump to that spot in the video. As the video plays, the relevant spot in the transcript will be highlighted.

Learn more, save more. Upgrade today!

Get our Annual Premium Membership at our best savings yet.

Upgrade to our Annual Premium Membership today and get even more value from your subscription:

“In a way, I feel like you are rooting for me. Like you are really invested in my experience, and want me to get as much out of these courses as possible this is the best place to start on your journey to learning new material.”— Nadine H.

Start your FREE 10-day trial

Begin learning software, business, and creative skills—anytime,
anywhere—with video instruction from recognized industry experts. provides
Unlimited access to over 4,000 courses—more than 100,000 video tutorials
Expert-led instruction
On-the-go learning. Watch from your computer, tablet, or mobile device. Switch back and forth as you choose.
Start Your FREE Trial Now

A trusted source for knowledge.


We provide training to more than 4 million people, and our members tell us that helps them stay ahead of software updates, pick up brand-new skills, switch careers, land promotions, and explore new hobbies. What can we help you do?

Thanks for signing up.

We’ll send you a confirmation email shortly.

Sign up and receive emails about and our online training library:

Here’s our privacy policy with more details about how we handle your information.

Keep up with news, tips, and latest courses with emails from

Sign up and receive emails about and our online training library:

Here’s our privacy policy with more details about how we handle your information.

submit Lightbox submit clicked
Terms and conditions of use

We've updated our terms and conditions (now called terms of service).Go
Review and accept our updated terms of service.