Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Importance of Keying A Painting

There are so many stimulants bombarding an artist painting outdoors that often important elements of painting are missed. Most notable of these is composition. I remember spending little time trying compositions in thumb-nail sketches and going straight to placing what I saw in front of me on the canvas. In the excitement of being in nature, I would skip slowing down and contemplating the scene before I commit paint to canvas. The results were and - yes I admit I still do it from time to time – some times still are mediocre. It is very rare for a good work of art to be a faithful representation of the elements in a scene as they are in nature. A good work of art should remind you of the scene and give you the feeling of being there, but it rarely does what a camera does in recording the scene faithfully.

Up The Hill, Oil on panel 8”x10”

Another element  is the process of keying a painting. In music – in general -  if you wish a piece to sound strong and energized, you are better off playing it in a major key, while if you wish the melody to be contemplative and smooth, you would use a minor or even a 7th key.

There are two essential ways to key a painting, and when that is done well, the painting can’t help but attract the eye. Just like in music, you key your work by choosing the dominant key and working the rest of the work around it.

PouringOnGlamourlake1a  morningfoglifting
Pouring On Glamour lake, 8”x10”                    Morning Fog Lifting, 11”x14”

The first keying decision is to choose a value key. Is your painting going to have a high value key (i.e. Light values dominate with a few darks representing full sunlight) or a low value key (i.e. dark values dominate with a few lights representing deep shadows), or even a middle value key representing mostly middle values (i.e. overcast day or fog where mid-values dominate).  The feel of the day should tell you what you should choose and for the most part it is better to comply otherwise you will have to be alert at every point to make sure you stay on … well key!

Another way to key a work of art is more subtle but no less important and effective. In fact it draws the line between the beginner artist and the accomplished one. That is the colour key. If you look through an artist’s early works,  you inevitably see a dedication to local colours. a Trunk is brown, a tree is green, a sky is blue etc… As the artist progresses, colour keying becomes more and more pronounced. Monet said he doesn’t paint objects in nature, he paints the effect of atmosphere and light on an object. We may believe that a tree is green, but the fact is depending on the time of day, and the type of light in the day and the distance it is from us, it could be any colour at all from orange to blue to violet to even black!

Travers In Blue Minor, Oil on panel, 8”x10”

Normally, there is a colour that dominates the scene. It could stem from a setting sun that bathes the scene in an orange glow (Orange Key), or it could be a bright day in the forest that vibrates with a green glow (Green Key). There are as many possible colour keys as there are different feels or types of days. It is important to spend the time and ask the question what colour key is the scene in? What colour key best reflects the day? What colour key best expresses the feel of the day? Once the colour key is establish, a sense of harmony and beauty permeates a work of art and it is a pleasing thing for the viewer.

DappledLight  Shade500
Dappled Light, 8”x10” Oil on panel               Shade, 5”x7” oil on canvas panel

The next time you look at a work of art, try to see these keys. They are subtle messages from the artist to you. A way to share a feeling that cannot be expressed in words.  Enjoy your art!


  1. This is so interesting. Honestly, I face this all the time when I write. I guess the "key" of a painting is similar to the voice or the mood of a story, and complete changes everything.

    Often times when I have been outside looking around, how I perceive the day almost always varies from how it appears in a photograph. The "clarity" of perception you capture in each of your paintings grabs at the feel of the day rather than the reproduction of its image.

    Beautiful and deeply profound post. I will be considering this idea the next time I sit down to write. Thank you.

  2. Hi Hillary,

    Thanks for your comment. You are absolutely right! The idea of keying is very similar to the voice or persona you assume when writing.

    Where can one read your writings?

  3. Just click on my blog posted with my name. There's a link on my page. Keep posting! Your art inspires me.


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