Give it to me in Black and White

I’m writing a series for The Artist magazine, but where to begin?

Here’s the trouble with magazines. In a class I have a qualified audience – oil painters or would be oil painters who want to improve their oils, but a magazine, with a readership of thousands,interests ranging from casual sketching to full blown classical oils;  what can you do?

One has to go past mediums and genres to try and find things of utility for readers of all abilities, whatever they choose to work in.

That’s the ideal, and of course as I get into my series I’ll have to get specific about oils, but it’s always nice to start with a BIG IDEA.

Big Idea: 70% of your visual system perceives the world in black and white, and therefore tones – or Values as we painters call them – are the most important part of any painting project.  Or to put it another way , if you get the Values wrong you can only be 30% successful.

Now that’s the kind of concept that can apply to any branch of Art, from simple pencil sketching, to iPad drawing to full blown classical portraiture.

I teach this a lot, and I’m always amazed at both how quickly taking this simple universal concept on improves people’s work, and then, inevitably,  that look on their face – often subsequently vocalised – ‘Why wasn’t I told this at Art School?’

So here are the things I think you must be taught at Art School.

  • The fact that your brain uses Value for it’s first and principal assessment of a visual image
  • That colour is a phenomenon of light, and therefore can be made to appear to glow, be flat etc imply by managing that interaction
  • That Art is seen by the eyes, but processed in the brain- all Art is psychology. The Masters exploited this from the early Renaissance – although they didn’t use the same words as you and I.
  • Visual ambiguity promotes psychological interest
  • The Scientific use of a colour wheel will free you from perception and promote creativity
  • That camera and device lenses do not see things, and certainly can’t record images as we do.
  • That Art is different to craft (applied art, painting, printmaking, filming are crafts).
  • That painting (craft) is a taught skill, not a God given one.
  • That not everything is Art, and by extension of that not all Art is equal.
  • That everything was contemporary once, and by extension of that nothing should be arbitrarily ruled out as ‘invalid’ on chronological grounds

Well, this is beginning to sound like a manifesto for change in Art education…I’ll go for a little lie down before I start to rant about the number of perfectly intelligent, wonderfully able and incredibly enthusiastic Art students who have gone through what passes for Further and Higher Art education in the UK.


Peploe understood the value of Value, a wonderful painter whose popularity with people who ‘know nothing about Art‘ is inexplicably strong. When will we start to appreciate that good use of line colour and value are timelessly relevant to visual arts practitioners?

If you’re under 25 and would like a proper education in Art, you may be interested to learn that I offer what may well be the UK’s only full time Apprenticeship in Painting.  If you’re a big older, then you might find one of my courses more to your taste, either way drop a line to and tell us how you think we can help.

One thought on “Give it to me in Black and White

  1. Martin
    A very insightful perspective of what really matters in art. Unless a work can grab a viewer in the first second then it will fail and value is clearly the key factor in making this happen.
    As someone who has attended your professional oils workshop I know your advice is sound and free of clever artifice which pretends to describe what art is rather than demonstrating the building blocks needed for us less talented painters to find our own way. Many thanks for simply the best art blog out there…


Leave a Reply to Guy Bailey Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s