Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Simple Value Structure... on the Figure, Too

This week I'm starting a new round of figure painting classes at the School of Light and Color in Fair Oaks. The class meets once a week, (Wednesday afternoons) and we will work in oils, with a model. 

I have been teaching figure drawing and painting in three-month rotations because I see the two disciplines as tightly related, but I just don't have the time to teach both at the same time. Teaching two classes a week (the figure, and the landscape) is just about the right amount of time to keep me on my toes. Any more time away from my own easel and I won't get any of my own work done.

So we just finished the drawing rotation, and are going into painting for the next three months. On today's post, I thought I'd talk briefly about the transition.

It all boils down to building on solid gesture, and moving on to simple value structure. In the beginning of the drawing classes, we focused on short (2 min) poses and used only line to capture the gesture and the volume. This really is key - as I mentioned many times before, if you can see, and put down on paper gesture (communicate what the figure is doing, not what it looks like) and show convincing volume without the help of "shading", the values that we (eventually) impose upon these figures will not be crutches. 

Here's a typical sheet of 14 x 17 paper with 2 minute gestures, using line. I use a 4B or 6B charcoal pencil. As you can see, you can show volume without the help of shading.

Same deal, on toned paper. The two keys to getting volume with line only, are 1) when one form meets another, look for form overlap. You won't be able to see them every time, but you should be able to see that one muscle is in front of another. Nothing in the human figure lines up end to end like sausages! 

and 2), indicate cross contours. Imagine hems on bicycle shorts to draw cross contours across the thigh. These don't need to be very visible. More subliminal than visible - after all, they're just construction lines.

After the gesture and form is already established, map out the shadow patterns and fill them in. Obviously, this type of approach needs a single, strong light source. Diffused light doesn't work the same way. 


1) distinguish form shadow edges (soft) from cast shadow edges. (sharp). If you can't tell whether a shadow edge is sharp or soft, determine first whether it's a form shadow edge or a cast shadow edge, and then force softness or sharpness upon it accordingly. 

2) fill the shadow areas in evenly. This isn't about modeling with value, but  about separating light from shadow. You only need two values and distinct edges to do this. If you got the first (gesture / line) part successfully, you'll notice you don't need to render the value here. Besides, you only have a few minutes!

The sketch above is done with a ball point pen, so the soft edges of the form shadows has to be expressed with broken lines. With a charcoal pencil, I just use the broadside of the lead for soft edges and the sharp point for the sharp edges.

If I have more time, (10 - 20 min) I'll do a little more than flatly filling in the shadow area, but let me stress here that the form has already been established so the variations in value has more to do with expression than information.

And then we move on to toned paper. We do exactly the same thing as charcoal pencil on white paper, except with a sanguine pencil and a darker-than-white paper, plus the addition of white conte. 

It's important to note that the value of the pencil (dark), the paper (medium), and conte (light) represent three different functions. As with b/w drawings, the pencil represents shadow areas, the paper represents the lit areas, and the conte represents the highlights on the lit areas.

Keeping these functions separate and distinct keeps the value structure simple and organized.

We're still not rendering values. Just indicating where the shadows, lights, and highlights are, with different tools. There really shouldn't be any ambiguity anywhere.

So we move onto PAINT this week. The idea is the same, just the medium is different. The figure above is painted with black only. The light side is toned with the same black (very lightly), the shadow side is just darker, more or less filled in flat. The highlights–where I would have used a conte in a drawing– is just rubbed away with a rag to reveal the white canvas.  This sketch has the addition of a fourth value, a darker dark surrounding the figure (Also used in a few areas within the figure).  But still,  four values is pretty simple and straightforward. 

And then the introduction of white paint allows us to go from transparent to opaque. The value structure is still very simple, but each gray is mixed from black and white. 

Once the basic structure is established, we can work on variations within the shapes, taking care to keep these variations subtle enough in order not to fragment the original structure.

With the introduction of color, things start to get more complicated but the idea of building on simple value structure doesn't change. 


My class starts this week, and I have a few spots open still. If you're interested, please call (916)966-7517 to sign up! You don't have to have been in my drawing class to jump into the painting class - I hope this post has given you some idea of what I teach in these classes. 

If this is the sort of painting you want to learn, I don't care what level you are. But please be forewarned. It takes practice. Lots of practice. 


  1. Terry, thanks for the warning! Should I just bring black paint tomorrow?

  2. Hey Randy, bring black and white both~ And bring three panels if you have them around - if not, don't worry, I have extra ones.

    Looking forward to painting with you!~

  3. Love your expressive drawings and your commentary is very helpful. I'm finding I'm often value/light/dark dyslexic . . . so seeing your visuals with an explanation is great!

  4. Thanks Lorraine~!Glad you liked the post.

  5. I would love to be in your class, but I live in the SF Bay area and you are a bit far from here. BUT I am learning so much about values and simplification of what I see by just reading your clear and step-by- step explanations. I'm getting your blog posts because I signed up on your blog. I think I found you from Carol Marine's blog, which I also follow. The web is a big wonderful share place. Again, thanx.

  6. su02420 - thanks! I'm glad you find this blog informative! I suppose the Bay Area is a little bit of a drive for a three hour class, but may be I can do a weekend workshop down in your area sometime~

  7. thank you for this breakdown of figure painting!! it was a great read :) wish i was in the area to take this class!

  8. Thanks for that, Elaine! *You* do beautiful work!