Painting in high key is a lot like
singing in a high key: some of us do it better than
others and some of us just can't do it
When one refers to a painting as being rendered in "high key" or "low key" they are alluding to the range of lights (tones) to darks. Imagine a piece reduced to a black and white photo; put your finger on the darkest dark. Now imagine that dark tone on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being white and 10 being the blackest black you can mix. If your dark is at 5 or below, the middle of the scale, the painting would be in high key. If the lightest color used checks in at 5 (a midtone) and the darkest color registers a 10 (or pure black), it would be low key. Read more here.
Of course I am simplifying something one could write volumes on. My point is that artists usually favor a certain key over another if even subconsciously. I know I love to get in the mix with deep darks and usually a lot of them. I can even find myself in a "low key" quagmire where I suddenly realize I can't go any darker even though I need to.
To this end I attempted recently to paint a "high key" piece.
See the red browns off to the left? I couldn't resist, and this may have led me astray...Still I did a decent job of blocking out the scene in relatively light and mid-light tones.
Skies are almost always one of the lightest pieces in a painting and I did fine keeping this in the 2-4 range of tones. I still could not resist laying in some "definition" telling myself I could adjust it along the way. (Note to self: no, you cannot adjust, you must correct immediately!)
The tree shapes are ok but I better watch those blue shadow lines getting close to the brownish road definition. I just might slip into the abyss of the dark side. But really, I am getting far more concerned at this stage about giving a credible rendering of the trees and their gradual shapes than I am the tones. I know I need to see the trees before I can easily chase the light of the sun.
So about now I decide that the colors on my palate will have to suffice and I just "go for it."
Here it is currently and while I see more "tweaking" to be done along the lower tree trunk line and the closer branches, I think I did ok in keeping it relatively high key, at least for me!
While I work to finish this piece I am also going to find other scenes I can practice painting while staying higher key. There is nothing wrong with using the range (say all 10 scales of the black and white tones) but there is a mood that can be created while working in one extreme or the other. My tendency in paint coloration is a lot like my personality: outspoken, loud, bold... definitely not quiet, demure or soft. Maybe learning to hold the line in colors will influence my persona presentation?? I'll let you know!
Lowering the Color Key,