The Art of Gradation

One of the more overlooked technical devices in creating a painting with sophisticated interest, is gradation. Although it is easy to think of gradation in terms of color or value, by extending your gradation vocabulary in all aspects of the work you can add interest, excitement, passive and active passages, elicit specific responses from viewers of the art, and produce paintings that invoke mood, time, and feeling in a more calculated way.


Before we look at more advanced ideas, let’s look at a few common examples of using gradated color and/or value in the landscape. If you paint landscapes, you may have been taught to apply gradation of lighter to darker or warmer to cooler in a large expansive sky. Not being one to fall back on formulas, I suggest my students begin to recognize when this truly happens in nature, at what times of day and with which specific colors and values rather than automatically reverting to this concept in every single case. Sometimes the sky may also gradate from warm to cool (or vice versa) as it spans from left to right rather than from horizon to Zenith. Learning which of these devices to use to convey a specific idea can strengthen your landscapes and keep them from all looking the same.

Gradation of color and value can also be useful when painting other subjects. In a still life, for example, you might use a gradation in the background from left to right and from top to bottom. Notice in this quick head sketch how color gradates and alternates from warm to cool to warm to cool to warm to cool as it wraps around the form of the form.

Christine in Thoughtc

Christina in Thought sketch demonstrating three gradations of warm to cool

Still another way to think of using gradation with color, is by varying the amount of color intensity from very neutral to extremely chromatic. Notice here, from left to right, we experience neutral, chroma, less chroma, neutral. See how the most intense chroma is where I want you to linger the longest when you look at the painting. I use this same type of gradation many times in the landscape to move the viewer’s eye around the painting, lend atmospheric perspective, and add interest.

Satsuma Oranges

Satsuma Oranges uses the most intense chroma in the reflected light at the bottom of the second orange, and gradates slowly more neutral both left and right from there.


Now, let’s take a look at gradation and how it can be useful in reference to other technical aspects of painting.


Castel Sant’Angelo is an example of large and small shapes, strokes, line, and edge variation

When it comes to shapes, gradation suggests a hierarchy of importance in the different areas of the piece. Some areas of this piece are still very simple, large masses; similar in color and/or value, allowing the viewer’s eye to have “rest.” Other areas have been broken down into smaller and smaller shapes which draw you in and make you want to explore each shape’s meaning. Rather than describing, or detailing, every aspect of the painting in the same manner, leaving some areas quiet, others more exciting, and still others greatly defined can add interest to your work.

In this same painting, notice how the edges are gradated. See how they are much sharper and harder in the most important parts of the painting, and gradually become lost and soft as they radiate away from them.

Down to the Sea

Down to the Sea, implores gradation of color, neutral, value, edges, line, shape, texture, and thickness of paint.

A pleasing aesthetic and one which I use often, is the use of paint-thickness gradation. This painting shows us how some areas of paint are applied as thin washes. Still others seem to have one or two additional “coats” of paint. As the painting is completed, paint gradually gets thicker and thicker until final areas are closer to impasto. By using this type of gradation, we can gain texture and depth in a piece. The same is true here using gradation of line. Notice there are wide legato-like strokes as well as staccato-like, tiny accents. These two devices alone can increase impact in your work.

Practice seeing and using gradation as many ways as you can. Then edit and use the types that work best for your subject. This sort of experimentation brings a load of learning at the easel and buzz and excitement to your next exhibition.

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