The Importance of Value for Artists
Understanding value, otherwise known as tone or tonality (the lightness or darkness of a color), is absolutely essential to any kind of drawing and painting, whether you do abstract, landscape, still life or figurative work. It isn’t merely a concern for realist painters, but something all artists should be aware of, as it is functioning in your work, whether it is used intentionally or otherwise.
Value is part of the underlying structure of a work of art, and is a key element of composition. It contributes to the illusion of depth and space, or conversely, to the flattening of the picture plane. It is also what gives objects their sense of three-dimensionality. It is largely responsible for giving a painting its overall feel—dynamic or peaceful, quiet or bold. In this post, I’ll explain more about value, then give you some exercises and tools to try on your own to hone the use of value in your art practice.
Some of the many wonderful (and interrelated) attributes of value:
1. Value creates form.
Value tells us about light. We’ve all seen a version of the famous sphere. Light falls across objects, illuminating them, and casting part of them into shadow—thus revealing form. If you are seeking to ‘turn’ your forms more, that is, to make them more three-dimensional, then taking the time to examine and cultivate your use of value is well worth the effort. The opposite is also true: if you are interested in flattening the picture plane and achieving a more modernist aesthetic, then understanding value will aid your efforts tremendously.
Value gives us an indication of the kind of light that is illuminating the objects. More intense, brilliant light will give stronger contrasts and more clearly defined shadows, while diffused light creates less contrast and softer shadows. This is important to keep in mind if you are trying to create or capture a particular sense of light – for instance, daylight or artificial light – in your painting.
2. Value gives the illusion of depth.
Value helps our understanding of depth, both in works of art and everyday life. Things nearest to us have higher contrast and full tonal or value range; whereas, things in the distance are lighter (higher in value) and have much less contrast, which is another way of saying that they are closer in value (the principle of atmospheric perspective). Seeing value is part of our spatial sense; our eyes are trained to register it. Once you have grasped this principle, you will be better able to observe it when painting from observation. You can also exaggerate it, when, for instance, you are seeking to produce an effect of deep space within shallower spaces, such as interiors.
3. Value creates contrast.
Value establishes areas of high contrast or low contrast. High contrast separates out objects, emphasizing them, whereas low contrast blends them together, even dissolves their boundaries (creating ‘lost’ edges). This is important to moving the eye around a painting and giving it places to rest. As well, there is often less detail within shadow zones than within areas of light. When painting portraits, old masters like Rembrandt will use greater contrast (and detail) in the face and much less in the clothing to draw the viewer’s attention to the subject.
Indeed, artists tend to use less contrast in dark, shadow areas (notice how there are only two values in Manet’s painting of Morisot’s hat and clothing), and much more in the areas of light. Simplifying shadow mimics how our eyes see. It is easy, especially for beginners but even for experienced artists, to overemphasize value variation in shadows but this detracts from the overall ‘order of light’ (see below) in a work of art.
4. Value helps establish a focal point.
Most paintings have a focal point or center of interest. This is created through many different means (color, perspective, etc), one of which is value. The eye will automatically be drawn to areas of high contrast or a note of difference (such as a moment of light within a sea of dark).
5. Value contributes to a sense of mood or atmosphere.
A painting done primarily with values on the light side of the spectrum will have a totally different feel than one done on the ‘dark side’. It will likely feel peaceful, atmosphere, gentle, or quiet, while the dark painting will feel moody, foreboding, emotive, or heavy. It may also suggest the time of day, such as morning or evening, or a place, such as a sun-drenched garden or a dimly lit cafe. A high contrast work is likely to feel more bold and dynamic than a low contrast work. Being aware of the effects of value allows you to consciously choose the value scheme that best suits your subject matter.
The Classic Order of Light
is a nine-step value scale as follows:
- Light light (the halo surrounding the highlight)
- Middle light (local value)
- Dark Light
- Light Halftone
- Dark Halftone
- Light Shadow
- Middle Shadow (core shadow)
- Dark Shadow (cast shadow)
Keep your lights and shadows in order! Remember that reflected light is still part of the order of shadows. It generally sits around a #6 on the value scale.
Tool: A Value Scale
A great tool to have on hand is a value step scale. You can make one yourself quickly and easily. Take a long strip of heavy paper and draw 9 equal rectangles side by side. On your palette mix a grey-scale from white (1) to black (9). Find the mid tone, and then work both directions. I find it helpful to mix all of the tones on your palette first before applying them, to make sure that each ‘step’ of the scale is even. I would use acrylic for this because it dries quickly. Afterwards, punch a hole through the center of each value with a hole punch. Now, when trying to identify which value a color is, you can hold your scale up to it and compare by squinting through the hole. Compare the color you are looking at to the tonal value surrounding it on your grey-scale. If it doesn’t look quite right, go up or down to the next ‘step’ of the scale.
Exercise 1: Examine black and white copies of your favorite works of art
It can actually be quite helpful to make black and white photocopy images of your favorite paintings to see their underlying value structure. You’ll learn a lot from analyzing them in this way. Ask yourself: how does the artist create a focal point? How does value contribute to the mood or feel of the painting? Is it a high- or low-contrast work? Identify what you like or don’t like. This will help you understand what you want to achieve in your own work. If you have digital photographs of your work you can open them in a photo-editing program like Photoshop elements and make them grey-scale. Try to identify what is working or not working in your piece in value terms.
It is essential to train your eye to see value in a world of color. It is complicated by the hue and intensity of a color. Each color has an inherent value and its vibrancy sometimes makes us think that it is actually darker or lighter than it really is. It takes practice but this exercise, and those that follow, really cultivate that ability. You may find it surprising to see what your artwork looks like in gray-scale.
Exercise 2: Compose with Value
The next time that you are planning or executing a painting, do a several simple thumbnail sketches focused on value in your sketchbook or on a sheet of paper. Thumbnail sketches are an important part of preparatory practice. A thumbnail sketch is a small, quick sketch (often only an inch or two in size) that allows you to visualize the composition of the final painting or drawing. They are a form of ‘shorthand’ or note-taking for artists and allow you to explore multiple ideas for a finished product before you actually start working on it. In this way, you can test the overall strength of the layout and, in this instance, you can examine the strength of different value compositions. Start your thumbnail by roughly drawing a small frame that is proportional to the canvas, board or piece of paper you are going to use. You can use charcoal, pencil, or even a black marker. Ignore details and small shapes or variations. Instead of focusing on drawing the contours of objects, loosely plot out the large areas of dark and light, ignoring edges (outlines). Indeed, in some places contours will be lost. Try to see shadows as shapes that extend from the object to the ground plane and onto other objects. This will help you think of your composition abstractly, in terms of value.
Exercise 3: Monochromatic Painting
Do a monochromatic painting or several quick studies using only black and white paint. You can use oil or acrylic. For this exercise, I recommend using single objects or setting up a simple still life. If you have white objects to use for your first study it will simplify the task of identifying value (you can add a quick coat of white paint to objects). If not, that’s fine, you’ll need to move onto color at some point anyhow. Make sure that you light your still life properly, that is, use a single light source and set it at a 45 degree angle to your set up. Spend no more than an hour on these studies. The idea isn’t to get a ‘finished’ painting but to train your eye to analyze value.
Exercise 4: Charcoal Painting
Another great value exercise, this time working ‘subtractively’ rather that ‘additively’. Cover a large piece of drawing paper with a thin coat of charcoal powder. This gives you a mid-tone to start from rather than a white surface. Set up a still-life (as in Exercise 3). Lightly sketch out your still-life using a piece of vine charcoal. Now for the fun: use a kneadable eraser to pull out the charcoal powder to achieve your lights. Go back into the lowest value darks with a stick of charcoal to deepen them.
Value can provide a solid scaffolding that holds a painting together and frees you to experiment in other areas, like color. As such, it is an essential tool to have in your artist’s toolkit.
I hope that this post has helped to ‘illuminate’ some of the wonderful functions that value has in works of art and inspired you to explore it in your practice. Let me know what you think!