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The Four Keys Of Composition

The four keys of composition set the overall value of the picture area is based on a scale from the darkest to the lightest. The picture areas is where we set the mood.

When you first see a finished piece of art what draws you to it. Can you pinpoint four elements that trigger an emotional response. Our brains drawing all these elements at once tell our subconscious that we either love it or hate it.

One of the reasons great art stands the test of time is because, the artists creating it has tapped into what the viewers wanted and liked at the time. This leaves us some of the best glimpses into that era of history. We study these four keys and apply them developing our own style.

The Four Keys

  • A high key value is bright and the overall tones are light. The artist may paint with light bright pastels colors to elevate your mood when you view it.
  • The middle key value has no extremes of light or dark and shows a balance of the two building a feeling of being content as you view it.
  • The full value has the whole range from white to black and will leave you with a feeling of the dramatic.
  • The Low key is the very dark, all tones are in the darkest range from black to white. Leaves you with a feeling of despair or sadness.

Here is an exercise you can try to help understand the keys a little better.

Make a Gray Scale using you pencils from hard to soft. On a strip of paper draw a long rectangle vertically, long and skinny. Now at the top of the rectangle leave an inch white the next inch use your 6H pencil, than in the next inch use your 5H, 4H, 3H, 2H ,H, HB, B, 2B and so on until you go completely dark with your 6B pencils.

This is scale that you will want to set or recognize value. It will show you the overall value of the picture area. The shades between white and 6B is divided into four sections the lightest is the high key and middle key is in the middle of the scale. The full is moving back and forth between the white to black or 6B and that leaves the last key, the range is in the darkest or lower range of your scale.

When you are setting the  fourth key or mood (overall tone) of the picture area remember to stay in the same key from start to finish.

When using paint it is the same you are just using color. You can make, print from your computer or purchase a color wheel. This will show you the colors in the key you want to stick to when painting. You can also get them at a paint stores, sometimes for free.

As you mind observes the gray scale and the color wheel it will train itself to see everything in these 4 keys of composition and file it until it becomes second nature.

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