In this post I discuss how you can use a high key to create beautiful displays of color in your paintings.
So what is a high key? It basically means you push all the values in your painting towards the lighter end of the value scale. So your darks will become mid-tones and your lights will usually remain around the same value.
Below is a standard 9 value scale, ranging from near white to near black (it is impossible to paint with absolute white or black).
When you start a painting, you have the option of using all these values between near white and near black.
A high key merely compresses the value range you use in a painting towards the lighter end. You can also compress the value range towards the darks (this is referred to a low key) or you could just compress the lights and darks, so you are only painting within the mid-tones.
Below is an example of some of the different keys you can paint in.
It is generally recommended that you compress your value range to some extent, as it can be difficult to manage a full range of values.
How To Paint Within A High Key?
Painting within a high key is pretty simple really. All you need to do is push the darkest darks in your painting to around the mid-tone range and then compress all the other values within this new range. Your lightest lights can stay the same.
Most importantly, you need to make sure the values between your darkest dark and lightest light retain the same relationship. You are just compressing the values, not changing their position.
The Benefits Of Painting In A High Key
So why would you want to paint in a high key?
One of the main reasons is that it allows you to paint with more vibrant colors. Why? Because most colors reach a peak saturation around the mid-tone range and lose saturation in darker or lighter value ranges.
In order to hit those really dark values, you usually need to start using some kind of black. But as you add more black, you also reduce the saturation of your color.
But, if you compress the value range so that your darks are now actually in the mid-tone range, then you can use more saturated colors as your darks. Overall, your painting will be a much more colorful display.
A high key painting is also just a pleasure to look at. The harmony between colors seems to increase as the colors increase in value. An arrangement of high key colors seems to produce a glimmering effect.
But painting in a high key does come with compromises, as discussed below.
The Compromise Of A High Key
When you paint in a high key, you naturally compromise the value structure of your painting to some extent. So you will not be able to rely on a strong value structure, but instead complex color harmonies to create interest in your paintings.
Also, when you compress your values, you are usually painting outside of the way things ordinarily appear. Instead of painting what you actually see, you are instead painting the relationships you see between values. This is a much harder (but still very effective) way of painting.
(You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I go into more detail on what color is and how to use it effectively in painting.)
Master Paintings In A High Key
Here are some paintings created by master artists which are in a high key. It is to no surprise that some of the most beautiful high key paintings (in my opinion) are by Claude Monet.
The impressionists are known to paint in a high key so that they could utilize more color in their paintings. Instead of blacks and browns in the darks, they used rich greens, blues and other colors.
Enjoy these beautiful displays of color.