How To Create Dramatic Paintings In A Low Key

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In this post I will discuss how you can use a low key to create very dramatic paintings. This post will follow on from my previous post which was all about painting in a high key

Low key paintings utilize colors the lower (darker) end of the value range. So your darks will be around black and your lights will be around the middle value range. 

High Key Painting | Oil Painting For Beginners | Landscape Painting | How To Paint In A High Key - Compressing Your Values

In the post about high key paintings, I featured some extremely colorful artworks which seemed to almost glimmer. The paintings I will feature in this post below are in stark contrast. 

They are mostly dramatic and gloomy paintings. 

A low key can be great for painting scenes at night, during a storm or interior scenes. The difficulty of painting in a low key is that black can tend to take over your painting if you are not careful. All your details may end up getting lost in the shadows. 

Also, if there is any glare on your painting, then your darks can end up looking weak and washed out. 

When painting in a low key, an effective technique can be to use small bursts of light color to act as powerful accents. This is demonstrated in the painting below by Childe Hassam. This sharp contrast is a great way to create the illusion of light with your paints. 

Low Key Painting | Low Key Color | Childe Hassam, Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago, 1892-1893
Childe Hassam, Nocturne, Railway Crossing, Chicago, 1892-1893

I hope you enjoy the rest of the paintings below. My particular favorites are by Edgar Degas of the dancers. He uses dark greens to dramatic effect.  Let me know your favorite painting in the comments. 

Claude Monet, Seascape, 1866
Claude Monet, Seascape, 1866
Claude Monet, Seascape, Night Effect, 1866
Claude Monet, Seascape, Night Effect, 1866
Low Key Painting | Low Key Color | Claude Monet, The Port Of Le Havre, Night Effect, 1873
Claude Monet, The Port Of Le Havre, Night Effect, 1873
Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal, 1875
Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal, 1875
Low Key Painting | Low Key Color | Edgar Degas, Dancer Posing, 1878
Edgar Degas, Dancer Posing, 1878
Edgar Degas, Dancer, 1877-1878
Edgar Degas, Dancer, 1877-1878
Edgar Degas, Musicians In The Orchesetra, 1872
Edgar Degas, Musicians In The Orchesetra, 1872
Isaac Levitan, Lake Como, 1894
Isaac Levitan, Lake Como, 1894
Isaac Levitan, Spring In The Forest, 1882
Isaac Levitan, Spring In The Forest, 1882
Ivan Shishkin, Forest
Ivan Shishkin, Forest
J.M.W. Turner, Moonlight, A Study At Millbank, 1797
J.M.W. Turner, Moonlight, A Study At Millbank, 1797
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Whistler's Mother, 1871
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Whistler's Mother, 1871
Joaquín Sorolla, Gray Day On Valencia Beach, 1901
Joaquín Sorolla, Gray Day On Valencia Beach, 1901
Winslow Homer, Summer Night, 1890
Winslow Homer, Summer Night, 1890
Winslow Homer, The Herring Net, 1885
Winslow Homer, The Herring Net, 1885

Bonus Download: New to painting? Start with my free Beginner's Guide to Painting.

Thanks for Reading!

Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my fundamentals course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

Read more of my articles. 

How To Paint In A Low Key | Low Key Painting | Low Key Color

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