Artist at Work: Creating a Visual Hierarchy

with Mary Jane Begin
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Artist at Work: Creating a Visual Hierarchy
Video duration: 0s 34m 54s Beginner


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)


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 an 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 setup, there wouldn't be any color reaction, so I decided to use a green ground, so there'd be complementary reaction.

What I'm gonna start with here is value. And what I'll be doing is actually pulling color off, or subtracting color right off 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 of those things that I wanna remember that it's the highest light in the whole painting. So I'm just gonna pop that right now, so you can see it. And I'm just using water and a scrub brush, and the scrub brush is just a stiff bristle brush, to kind of pull of the second highlight as well.

And those will be the lightest, brightest spots in the whole painting. Then I'll pull off a little bit of color where it's sort of the most red, vibrant, sort of orangey red when I go to paint 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 it's a way to establish your palette first.

Just think about what's the value gonna 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 him to feel like something that's honored and revered and a little mysterious. So I pulled some paintings from the computer, some Renaissances paintings, and you can see they're lit with a single light source, just like Milton, and they're like things being pulled out of darkness. And that's why this ground is really deep.

The ground is made of Phthalo blue, a little Viridian green, and some Van Dyke brown. You can see I'm pulling the light off the back of Milton and then I'm gonna pull I think some of the light on the front of Milton. I see his shape, it 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 it's 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 they're kind of important, so I'm gonna 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. And it's just so 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.

There's also, there's light on the top of this thing, there's the most 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 it back on without doing that I'm just reapplying the ground color. Now I'm gonna do another large shape, which is this light right along here, so you can see the edge of Milton. And I'm also gonna think about texture in this one, to think about there's sort of pretty simple texture set up here, it's basically this very shiny object, Milton, and then there's a very sort of textural plaid shirt, just our cloth, and I can imagine it's fairly soft and it's obviously not shiny.

So I'll deal with that with a slightly different mark making system than this brush. I'll choose something else to create a different mark. Let me just pull a few more lights off here. You can see there's also 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 is I'll actually take a sponge and because this cloth is a little bit textured, more so than Milton, I'm just gonna 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 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 than what's on the top, so I don't lighten the whole thing. Because then it sort of looses 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 I'm just gonna 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, and 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 pull some of this off with a textural mark. So probably, I could even use this brush to kind of poke it, just stab at it a little bit, instead of doing a stroke, I'm gonna 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 gonna 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 Milton, 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 can 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.

And I can just scrub like this, but for time sake I'm gonna go back to 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, is the whole shape of this painting. I'm not just thinking about the spot where my focus of my attention is, I wanna 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 gonna do some of these things off stage 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 wanna try to think about the hierarchy of the light first, which is the lightest light, which should be probably your focal point, to middle tones, to something that has the least amount of light, or the greatest darkest value. And make sure that your 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 gonna find different lights and textures, I'm gonna 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 wanna lead the eye with light up to where Milton is, so 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 the next thing we'll talk about will be limited palettes and glazing.

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