Project Overview – Slides PDF

Theme: Experiment with lighting and shapes

Problem: Create black and white portraits that convey a mood or feeling using the rule of thirds, stable figure ground and a clear focal point.

Limits: Use a narrow value range in low (dark) key; achromatic grays

Materials: Sketchbook, pencils, Bristol Board 9×12″,  acrylic paints, brushes, palette, rags, water container, photoshop

Concepts: Value, grayscale, achromatic, focal point, contrast, shadow, highlight, narrow value, broad value, high key, low key, open-value composition, closed-value composition, Rule of Thirds

Technical Skillsthumbnail sketching, painting techniques, photography & lighting techniques, digital tools

Student Examples

Example 1

Example 2

Learning Outcomes

For the successful completion of this project, you should be able to: 

  • Take multiple photos that have different compositions and concepts.
  • Understand value and be able to create contrast.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of composition and recreate your own grayscale.
  • Demonstrate attention to detail and craft using acrylic paints and brushes.
  • Share each phase of the design process by posting to the class site and providing critical supportive feedback to classmates.

Grading Rubric

Each project will be graded using the Project Rubric. Complete each part of the design process, following the due dates provided in each class meeting agenda.

Design Process

  1. Discover: Hand Portraits & Value Scale
  2. Define: Journalistic style Self Portraits
  3. Develop: Media Transformations – Paint and Pixel
  4. Deliver: Post and Comment

1. Discover

Research:  Gordon Parks study and inspiration

Gordon Parks was an African-American Journalistic photographer, writer, director and composer who forged new ground in a art world dominated by white culture. For this project, Parks work can help inspire  mood, a sense of compassion, expressiveness and deceptively complex composition.

Short news piece on Parks, PBS

Long Documentary

Hand Portraits

  • Narrow value (light)
  • Broad value (full value range)
  • Narrow value (dark)
  1. Using a camera or camera phone*, compose photographs of your hands with the following value ranges:
    • (1) narrow value range / light – predominately light end of the grayscale
    • (1) narrow value range / dark – predominately dark end of the grayscale
    • (1) broad value range – spread across the grayscale (dark, middle, and light).
  2. If you have the ability to shoot with a grayscale, black & white, or noir filter, please do.
  3. Try to create an expression of feeling by how you hold your hand.
  4. Allow the value range: light, dark, broad to affect the mood.

* If you don’t have a camera, please partner with another student who does.

Value Scale

Complete the Achromatic Value Scale using a range of pencils (2H-5B)

  • On the handout provided, complete the four scales starting with 2-step (black/white) and ending with 9-step.
  • Your 9-step value scale should have black, low dark, dark, high dark, mid-value, low light, high light, and white.

2. Define


  • Value: Signifies the relative differences of light and dark
  • Achromatic Value: Value with the absence of hue (color).
  • Grayscale: The full range of values simplified into a graduated scale.
  • Narrow Value Range: When the values congregate around the dark (low-key), middle (middle-key), or light (high-key) part of the grayscale.
  • Broad Value Range: When the values are spread over the dark, middle, or light part of the grayscale.
  • Shadow: Dark area of an object as a result of a disruption of the light source.
  • Highlight: Portion of an object that receives the greatest amount of direct light
  • Contrast: Occurs when elements are unrelated or dissimilar in value, size, shape, etc.
  • Gradation: Occurs when elements incrementally (slowly) change in value, size, shape, etc.
  • Chiaroscuro/Tenebrism: Forceful use of contrasting lights and darks, creating a dramatic mood.
  • Film Noir: a cinematic term used to describe a visual style that emphasizes low-key lighting and unbalanced compositions.
  • Focal Point: The elements or objects on which the viewer’s attention is focused.
  • Rule of Thirds: A compositional guideline; an image is divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections to create tension, energy and interest, rather than simply centering the subject.

Value Portraits

On your own or with a partner, take 3 closely framed, black & white/grayscale portraits that convey a distinct mood using both strong contrast and gradation of light and dark and a stable figure-ground relationship. Utilize the Rule of Thirds to create tension or energy in the composition. Avoid centering the subject (yourself). Keep Parks’ photos and life as inspiration when considering the character, tone and expression of the portrait. What feeling is generated or communicated from sitter to viewer?

Painting Prep

Follow the “How to Posterize an Image” post here with your selected photo.

3. Deliver

Transfer to Bristol

  1. Using your posterized portrait printout, trace the outlines of the posterized lights, darks and midtones to a piece of tracing paper using a inking pen (.2 or .5).
  2. Then use the inked tracing paper and light table to transfer to bristol using a very light pencil.

Copy value shapes to tracing paper in ink

  • Bristol over trace, tape to window
  • Trace to bristol in pencil

Painting on Bristol

  1. With your posterized printout as a visual reference, paint each value area using a range of black, white, and gray values. Use your Value Scale as a guide for matching value steps.
    • NOTE: The paint will be lighter when it dries. Test your range of values on scrap bristol first.
  2. When you have completed your composition carefully protect all elements with a piece of clean tracing paper.
  • Thoroughly mix paint before applying
  • Fill in the range of values

Painting Tips

  • Do not worry about accurately rendering an eye, nose or ear, see/think only in terms of value and the boundaries of each value relationship.
  • Notice how some values crossover shape boundaries into adjoining areas (open-value), while others are limited by the edges of the shape (closed-value).
  • Remember protect your painting with tracing paper as you work. Paint is delicate and can easily pick up the dirt and oils from your hands.
  • Before you apply paint to paper make sure it’s completely mixed in the palette to produce a flat consistent appearance. We want flat, blocks of paint without streaks or brush marks.
  • Keep two containers of water, use 1 for washing your brushes and 1 for adding water to paint.
  • Wash your brush after each value is mixed and applied.
  • Use a paper towel or rag to get excess paint and water off the brush before mixing a new value.

4. Document

When you are finished, scan your artwork using the available scanner in the classroom or computer labs. Or take a well lighted, well composed photograph. This image will be uploaded to class blog for critique and grading.

Use this guide to avoid common mistakes when photographing your work with a camera phone.

4. Deliver

Submitting in your work

Follow the How to Post Your Work guidelines and include the project-specific details below:

  • Post Title: Value Portrait
  • Written Project Reflection: Document your thoughts about this project. Think about what you learned, what you could have done better (planning, material use, craft), and how you will apply what you learned to your next project. Consider and respond to the comments made in class during the critique.
  • Images: Organize your post to include all images from the three other Design Process phases for this project. (Discover, Define, Develop).
  • Category and Tags:
    • Category = Project #2 Posts
    • Tags = Deliver, Value Portrait

Providing Feedback

Part of your Project grade is leaving well-written comments for your peer-critique partner and at least one other student. Follow the How to Comment and Critique guide for specific guidelines for leaving constructive feedback.

REMINDER: You will receive a grade and comments from the Professor on your posts and peer comments. Without your deliver post, you will not receive a grade.


  • Bring all parts of this project to class: Discover, Define, Develop.
  • When presenting your work, start with following: your name, the project title, the theme of the project, what you feel you did successfully, what you can improve on next time.
  • Your peers and the professor will provide supportive, constructive feedback.
  • You will have an opportunity to revise your work based on the feedback and improve your work and your grade.