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acrylic painting of a girl with an orange umbrella walking in the rain

What Is Meant By Value In A Piece Of Art


In the last few posts I have talked a lot about colors. Today I will talk about value in a painting, which most artist will tell you may be more important than color.

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

Simply put, value is the lightness or darkness of a color.

There is a lot of information out there about value and tone in a painting. Much of it is technical and highly detailed. I just want to paint my black dog and black cats and have them look realistic.

By understanding value, I can paint them any color I want and still have them look like my wonderful friends. So here are the very basics of “value” for beginners.

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What is Value in a Painting?

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color based on how close it is to white on a value scale. It ranges from blackest black to whitest white with graduating shades of grey in between.

The closer a color is to white, the higher its value is. In the scale below, black would be 1 and white would be 10. I use a purchased grey scale like this one.

For more information on using value in your artwork read my post on shading and highlighting.

Value Scale
Grey Scale

It works the same way for colors. You have darker tones, midtones and light tones of the same colors. 

value scales of the colors red, blue and green
Value Scales of Red, Blue and Green

As you can see, you can do an entire painting with very limited colors and still have a wide variety of hues.

acrylic painting of lake at night with a dark tree and birds
Acrylic on Canvas Paper by MarilynO @TrembelingArt
acrylic painting of a boat in moonlight by TrembelingArt
Moon Boat Acrylic on Canvas by MarilynO @TrembelingArt


Why is it Important to Know About Value? 

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

Value also enables you to create the highlight or focal point in your painting by contrasting the light against dark.

painting of a pink rose on a green leafy background
Rose on Green by MarilynO @TrembelingArt


How to See the Value in a Painting

You can make your own value scale or purchase a pre-made one. You can hold your value scale next to the object you are painting or on your reference photo to give you a better idea of the value, or lightness or darkness of the image. 

Squinting to See the Value

If you don’t have a value scale available, try stepping back from your work and blurring your eyes by squinting. This helps to filter the light and and enables you too see the lights and darks better.

Tonal Sketch

Another way of judging value is to do a tonal painting or sketch. You do this by painting your piece all in one color, for example grey.

Use the various tones of grey to paint the lights, darks and midtones.  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 the values in the painting.

acrylic painting of a stack of rocks and bamboo shoots with text overlay understanding value in a painting

Value in Drawing

I found that doing a graphite drawing of my subject first was the best way for me to understand the different values in a painting. In the piece below, I liked the drawing so much I turned it into a framable piece.

You can see from the drawing where the lights and darks and midtones are.

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


Convert to Black and White

You can also take a photo of your subject and convert it to black and white. Compare this with the original to see where the lightest values and darkest values are.

You can also take a picture of your finished painting or scan it to your computer and convert it to black and white to see if you have mad any mistakes with the values.

side by side comparison of a black and white smudge of paint and a deeply red smudge of paint

Try out some of these techniques on your next painting and see the difference paying attention to value makes in your work. I would love to see some of your results.

Please comment below or post your results on my Facebook page TrembelingArt.

Thanks for reading. 🙂

Digital signature Marilyn with butterfly




2 thoughts on “What Is Meant By Value In A Piece Of Art”

  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

  2. Pingback: How To Express Emotions In Your Drawing - Trembeling Art

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