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The Importance of Value for Artists

The Importance of Value for Artists. A free tutorial on painting and drawing with exercises, tools, analysis of artworks and more! On the Oh She Paints Blog:

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.

The illuminated sphere shows how light from a single source falls across an object, creating an 'order of light'
The illuminated sphere shows how light from a single source falls across an object, creating an ‘order of light’ which shows us the direction of the light and the form of the object.

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.

Vincent Van Gogh "Sunflowers" (1888)
In Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting “Sunflowers” (1888) he intentionally flattens the image. The form of the vase doesn’t ‘turn’; it shows very little indication of light (only a slight value change and small highlight). Similarly, the ground plane (the surface on which the flowers sit) is painted in just one value, raising it up vertically, rather than giving it a sense that it is a flat plane that extends away from the viewer into space. Yet he skillfully uses value variation to give visual interest to the flowers and to create an overall sense of harmony in the painting.
 Jean Baptiste Chardin "Still Life with Attributes of the Arts" (1766)
In this more traditional still life painting, “Still Life with Attributes of the Arts” (1766), Jean Baptiste Chardin uses value, the order of light and shadow provided by a directed light source, to render the still life objects. We have a strong sense of their form, their weight and placement in space. The result is a beautiful and convincing three-dimensional rendition.

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.

Camille Pissarro "Mountain Landscape at Saint Thomas, Antilles" (1855)
Camille Pissarro creates a sense of deep space in this unfinished painting “Mountain Landscape at Saint Thomas, Antilles” (1855) by using atmospheric perspective. The mountains in the distance are lighter in value (pale) and have less value contrast than the landscape in the foreground which has full value contrast (a range of darks, mid-tones, and lights).
Frans Koppelaar painting "Landscape near Bologna" (2001)
Frans Koppelaar uses the same value strategies to create space in his painting “Landscape near Bologna” (2001). Notice that the activity in the middle ground (trees and houses) are closer in value and have less value contrast than the trees and vegetation in the foreground (closest to us).

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.

Édouard Manet "Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets" (1872)
In Édouard Manet’s portrait of his fellow artist, “Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets” (1872), he skillfully uses value to draw the viewer’s eyes to Morisot’s face. Her clothing is a simplified black (which is the lowest value of the value scale), with little value contrast, which frames her face beautifully. Detail is lost in the shadows and the edges meld together. The touches of lighter value in the violets and her shirt and neckline serve to guide the eyes upwards to the lighter tones and variation of her head and hair.

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.

Diego Velázquez "The Lunch" (1618)
This early painting by Diego Velázquez, “The Lunch” (1618), clearly shows how shadows often meld together: the figure of the young man pouring wine blends into the shadowy background; his edges are ‘lost’ in many places. Meanwhile, the objects illuminated in the foreground are much more clearly defined with sharper edges.

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).

Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 1849–50
In Gustave Courbet’s painting, “A Burial at Ornans” (1849–50), our eyes are led to the figures in the foreground due to the contrast between black and light (or high and low value). This draws our attention to the hole in the ground and leads us to question who is being buried.
Francisco Goya "The Third of May" (1814)
In his painting “Los Fusilamientos del Tres de Mayo,” also known as “The Third of May” (1814), Francisco Goya uses value contrasts to draw attention to his subject: the man about to be shot is illuminated, with a brilliant white shirt and mid-to-light tone pants, while the firing squad is enveloped by the shadows of the night.
Edvard Munch also uses value contrast in "The Sick Child" (1907)
Edvard Munch also uses value contrast in “The Sick Child” (1907) to draw attention to the subject of the painting. The ill child is surrounded in light value, which makes her ‘pop’ out, and her face is illuminated.

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.

Claude Monet's painting "Waterloo Bridge" (1903)
Claude Monet’s painting “Waterloo Bridge” (1903) is done in a “high key” palette, meaning at the light end of the value spectrum. In this way, he captures an effect of fog and atmosphere, giving the painting an ethereal quality and quiet feeling.
J.E.H. MacDonald's painting "Trucks and Traffic" (1913)
J.E.H. MacDonald’s painting “Trucks and Traffic” (1913) is done in a “low key” palette, meaning at the dark end of the value spectrum. It gives not only a sense of the time of day, but a weightiness and almost ominous feeling to the painting.

The Classic Order of Light

is a nine-step value scale as follows:

  1. Highlight
  2. Light light (the halo surrounding the highlight)
  3. Middle light (local value)
  4. Dark Light
  5. Light Halftone
  6. Dark Halftone
  7. Light Shadow
  8. Middle Shadow (core shadow)
  9. 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.

my DIY gray-scale value finder
Here’s my DIY gray-scale value finder. I only had a three-hole punch so I couldn’t get the holes right in the middle!

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.

Henri Matisse "Olive Trees at Collioure (1906)
A lovely painting by Henri Matisse “Olive Trees at Collioure” (1906), in its full original color.
Henri Matisse's "Olive Trees at Collioure (1906) converted to black and white.
Henri Matisse’s “Olive Trees at Collioure” (1906) converted to black and white.

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.

An example of thumbnail sketches.
An example of thumbnail sketches. These ones are about 1inch square and done with a Sharpie. They only take a few seconds to do.
A two-toned still life demonstrating shadow shapes
While this is not a thumbnail sketch but a larger sketchbook drawing, I wanted to share it with you to illustrate what I mean by shadow shapes. The shadows on the objects don’t remain contained within their contours but form a larger shape that encompasses shadows in the background, on the dish and on the cloth.

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.

A monochromatic painting study of a pepper
A quick monochromatic study of a pepper. Fruit and veggies are a readily available subject for these studies. This one is in oil paint.
A monochromatic painting study of some random household objects painted white.
A monochromatic painting study of some random household objects painted white. Remember we are interested in studying value – the objects aren’t really important. I used acrylic for this one.
A quick monochromatic landscape painting study (from a photograph).
A quick monochromatic landscape study (from a photograph). You can use any subject you like to practice analyzing value. This one was also done in acrylic.

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.

Drawing materials for your charcoal painting: powdered charcoal.
Drawing materials for your charcoal painting: powdered charcoal.
Drawing materials for your charcoal painting
Drawing materials for your charcoal painting: vine or willow charcoal and a kneadable eraser.
"Still Life with Studio Objects" by Christine Rose Henderson (2015)
Here’s an example of a Charcoal ‘Painting’ that I did a year ago “Still Life with Studio Objects”. The light areas have been achieved by using the kneadable eraser like a brush to create strokes of light. In the darkest areas I went back in with a charcoal stick. The paper has some tooth to hold the charcoal.

Looking forward

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!










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4 Replies to “The Importance of Value for Artists”

  1. Well written, friendly.

    Summarizes foundational point very well.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Cathy. Let me know if there is anything you’d like to see in future posts 🙂

  2. Excellent well written and organized article on why, we do what we do. Thank you

    1. Thanks for your feedback Suzalele! I’m really glad you enjoyed the article!

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