“It is in the contrast of light and dark that design happens.” Helen Van Wyk

This is part 7 in my series of 10 “top observations” on painting…although I think a few more may crop up ­čÖé

First a definition: In art, “value” is the range of grayscale from white to black, generally thought of in a 1-9 scale (1 being white, 9 being black). It has been said that the eye can discriminate no more than 9 distinct grays. Why are values important? The root of our visual system is value, not color. We saw in grayscale before color (according to the evolution of our visual systems).

Control of values is the most challenging technical aspect of painting, at least for me. I’m continuously learning and honing this skill. Values are important for two reasons:

  • Design. A strong value structure forms the basis for a good composition/design (see “Work in Abstractions”);
  • Representing Reality. you can’t truly have fun with color unless you get the value right. I’ve had more than one colorist master tell me, “it doesn’t matter what color you paint something, as long as the value is right”. I’ve found this to be true: if you’re values are correct, the painting will “read” correctly.

When I’m having a problem with a painting, I’ll often go through the process below to determine if the values are correct. This can be done both plein air using a digital camera in the field, or in your studio on a PC.

  1. Take a digital photo of your subject, being careful to get a good balance of values–eg, center your view on an area with both darks and lights, to get a good average. This is more difficult that most realize. Cameras–even digital–tend to over-darken the darketst darks and white out the lightest lights. Taking a digital photo with the correct value balance is an art in itself.
  2. View the photo in grayscale. Most digital cameras allow you to modify your image on the camera in this way. If not, transfer the image to your PC and use photo editing software to convert it to grayscale.
  3. Take a digital photo of your painting, again, being careful to get the right balance of values.
  4. View your painting in grayscale.
  5. Compare your painting and reference photo in grayscale. Do they match?

Although I’ve included the color versions below, the key comparison to make are the black and white images, the reference photo on top, my in-progress painting below. This schene is basically a simple three-value design, with some highlights (light) and accents (darkest darks) here and there.

This is the first layer of paint–I expect to add one more. The key question I had when I decided to analyze this painting was: is the value of the light side of the bridge correct? Is the value of the cast shadow on the water correct? Reds are particularly challenging to paint in the correct value–don’t know why, but that’s my experience.

Compare the value of the distant hills with the bridge in light, bottom left of the black and white reference photo. They’re almost exactly the same. Surprising, when you see my color version, which has a distinct vibrant difference (probably due to the red/green complementary color change). Because the colors were so vibrant, it was difficult for me to tell if the red was the right value, turns out I got it right. The cast shadow of the bridge (which I think makes this painting interesting), is also the correct value when seen in grayscale. What’s incorrect–and this surprised me–was the concrete pier base of the bridge in the foreground. It’s not nearly light enough. Knowing this, I can correct the painting’s value structure and finish it off with bridge rigging and other possible detail.


Reference Photo – Color

Reference Photo – Black & White

My Painting – Color

My Painting – Black & White

Here are some of my own paintings in grayscale, to illustrate the value of a distinct blocks of value in painting to build strong design. Color versions are also available, as well as some reference photos when available.

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11 thoughts on “Observation 7: Value Values

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