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How to Use Value in Your Artwork

What is Value?

Are you confused about exactly what value is and how you would use value in your artwork?

Simply put, value defines how light or dark a color is. Lighter values are referred to as tints. Darker values are referred to as shades.

This variation in value is what enables you to have shadows, highlights and contrast in your painting.

Value is what makes an apple look like an apple rather than a red circle on your canvas. It’s the lights, darks and mid-tones that give a painting dimension and form.

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What is a Value Scale?

grey value scale consisting of ten squares ranging from black to white
Value Scale

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color based on how close it is to white on a value scale. A value scale is strip of squares or blocks ranging from the darkest dark gradually progressing to the lightest light.

The dark squares are shades, the middle squares are mid-tones and the lighter squares are tints. You use these values in your painting or drawing to get depth, dimension and contrast.

It works the same way for colors. You have darker shades, mid-tones and lighter tints of the same color. Understanding value will help you get your lights light enough and your darks dark enough to have good contrast in your artwork.

value scales of red, blue and green
All colors have a range of values

You can do a painting with a very limited color palette and still have a wide variety of hues to give you contrast and depth.

value painting of a moon shining on a river and blue roses
Roses in the Moonlight
acrylic painting of the moon behind a boat
Moonlight Boat

A value scale is a good tool to keep handy to check that the values in your painting or drawing are correct. You can make your own by just drawing or painting squares of gradually lightening color from black to white like the above picture.

You can also purchase a gray scale from your art supply store or Amazon. I have purchased a gray scale and value finder because I like the sturdiness of it.

gray scale and value finder and color wheel
Gray Scale and Value Finder with Color Wheel

Why It Is Important To Understand Value

acrylic painting of a tree with fall leaves and fairy twinkles
Fairy Tree by MarilynO

Value is actually more important than color in a painting. If your values are off the whole painting will not look cohesive and may even be confusing to the viewer.

picture of a green apple
It is sometimes hard to see values on a colored photo
black and white picture of an apple
With the color removed, an apple is still recognizable

Even with the color removed, an apple still looks like an apple. The values are what give the apple the illusion of shape and dimension. The color is just the icing on the cake.

Learning the basics of value will significantly improve your painting. This is what enables you to paint an object and give it the illusion of being three dimensional instead of flat on your canvas.

Value also enable you to create the highlight or focal point in your painting by contrasting the light against dark. The viewers eye is automatically drawn to the area of highest contrast so knowing how to achieve the proper contrast in your work will draw your viewer to the main area of focus in your piece.

How to See Value in a Subject

The first step in placing values correctly in a painting is to determine where the values are in your subject. There are several ways to do this.

Using a Value Scale

You can use your value scale to determine where the lights and darks are in your reference photo or subject. Hold the scale against your photo and move it around to see where the darkest and lightest values are and how they compare to the elements around them.

red apple with value scale
Use the value scale to see lights and darks

Squinting to See

If you don’t have a value scale you can try this old trick. Step back from your work and blur your vision by squinting your eyes. This helps filter the light and helps you see the lights and darks better. It’s not perfect, but works in a pinch.

Doing a Tonal Painting

Another way of judging value is by doing a tonal painting. You do this by doing your painting entirely in values of gray. This is known as Grisaille and is used to do underpaintings and then glaze color over the grays.

Use various tones of gray to paint lights, darks and mid-tones. Concentrate on the shapes in your painting and where the lights and darks are rather than specific colors.

It doesn’t need to look like a finished piece, it just needs to give you a general idea of where the values are.

Drawing Your Values

For me, doing a graphite drawing is the best way to understand where the values are in my reference. It certainly doesn’t need to be as detailed as my drawing below. I sometimes go back to my sketch and add more detail to make it a framable piece.

You can see from the drawing where the lights and darks are in the photo. Use the drawing as a reference when you are not sure how light or dark something needs to be.

Graphite Drawing of a vintage tractor by MarilynO @TrembelingArt
Vintage Tractor
acrylic painting of a vintage tractor by TrembelingArt
Vintage Tractor by MarilynO

Convert Your Photo to Black and White

You can also take a photo of your subject and convert it to black and white. Most cell phones today are capable of editing your photo and converting it to grey scale or black and white.

You could also take picture of your reference and scan it into your computer and use the photo editor on your computer to remove the color.

The black and white picture will show you the variations in value without all of the color noise so you get a better idea where the shadows and highlights should be.

picture of red apple with green leaf
Color can sometimes interfere with our perception of value.
black and white picture of an apple
Turning the photo to black and white can show the values more clearly.

How to Use Value in Your Painting

Now that you have some ideas for seeing the values in your subject, you can use what you learned and apply it to your painting. Reference your gray scale or other methods you used to check that the lights and darks are correct.

A good way to check the value placement is to take a picture of your painting in progress and change it to black and white. You can compare it to a black and white picture of your reference or to your value scale and you should be able to easily see if something is a bit too dark or too light and adjust accordingly.

So if a dark area of your reference photo matches the darkness of the second block on your value scale, that same area of your painting should also be as dark as that block.

tubes of red, blue, green and yellow paint on a white palette
Pin to save for later

There is a lot to learn about value, color, contrast, shading and highlighting in art. As with most things, it comes easier with practice and you learn a lot by doing. If you would like to learn more about highlights and shadows you can read my post Beginners Guide to Highlighting and Shading.

Try out some of these techniques in your next painting and see what a difference paying attention to value makes in your work.

Thanks for reading. 😊

Digital signature Marilyn with butterfly

5 thoughts on “How to Use Value in Your Artwork”

  1. Your advice and explanation on value will help me a lot while teaching some of my friends how to paint. That’s the theme for the next class. Thank you

      1. Thank you Susanne, I am always so happy when someone finds my information useful. We never stop learning and improving in art, there is always something new to explore. Happy painting. 😊

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