If you were to ask me:
- what the most useful thing I’ve done is,
- what’s made the most difference to my progress,
- when I saw the biggest leap forward in my ability to paint realistically,
I’d have to say it was practising with the Munsell value scale.
Now I know that value scales may not be particularly glamorous. But the most effective stuff rarely is. The most effective stuff is generally characterised by what looks rather like grunt work. Grunt work and repetition.
Practice makes permanent.
The more you practise something, the more deeply it becomes embedded.
So if you want to improve your values – indeed, if you want to improve the realism of your paintings – this post is for you.
I’m going to take you through making an accurate Munsell value scale, from start to finish. That in itself will teach you a lot about value.
In a follow-up post later, I’ll also give you some ideas for how you can use that scale to deepen your understanding of value. Because if you can get value right, you’re more than half of the way to getting colour right. And accurate colour = realism.
How to Make Your Own Munsell Value Scale
First, you need a Munsell value scale to work from. The cheapest way to get this is to get hold of the Munsell student book. It comes with a collection of little tags for you to place in the book, and one of those collections is the Munsell value scale.
Get yourself a value scale to copy
You can get the most recent copy of the Student book on Amazon, but it’s also worth looking around to see if you can get the second edition – which I have – more cheaply. If you do, MAKE SURE IT HAS THE COLOUR CHIPS INCLUDED!
I have heard that the third edition includes a glossy value scale, but I can’t confirm that personally. If it does, I think it’s worth getting the third edition, but check first – caveat emptor.
Here’s the value scale in place in the book (this page also shows the Munsell hue wheel and a single hue from low to high chroma at a single value):
All those little neutral (i.e. grey) paper tags make up the scale – or at least, all of it except for a couple of values that don’t come with the student book. But don’t worry about those, you can do fine without them.
So, to make our own scale, we need to match each of those values separately with oil paint.
Now, you might be wondering why you need to do that when you already have the scale there, in the little paper tags from the book.
The answer is that the act of individually matching each of those values yourself will stretch and develop your sensitivity to value. If you try to match those tags until you can hit them dead on, you will already find value easier to judge in the real world.
Think of it as push ups for your value-judging muscles. You wouldn’t run a marathon without training for a while first. Well, this is your basic value training.
So let’s get started. The process is the same for all the values, so I’ll just demonstrate one in this post – the value 7.
What you need:
- A small piece of acetate – use a cut off piece from an overhead projector slide. You can these really cheaply from office supply shops
- Oil paint: titanium white, ivory black and burnt umber (yes, you can use acrylics but the values may change as the paint dries)
- A palette and a palette knife. It will help if your palette is a mid value grey. Glass is best. A cheap clip picture frame is fine.
- Some robust card to make your own tags with. I’d use at least 300 gsm. Cut 10 pieces, 2 inches by 1 inch.
- (optional) A colour checker – just a piece of card about 2 inches by 2 inches with a small rectangular hole in the middle.
Preparing the card chips:
First, cut the card into 10 chips, 2 inches by 1 inch:
Prime each of the card chips with acrylic primer, making it as smooth as you possibly can. You can sand the acrylic primer a little, after it’s dry, to get a smoother finish.
Here’s a handy tip: when you’re priming the chips, stick them to the palette with blu-tack so they don’t move around.
Now you need to mix up the paint for each chip, by matching each one of the value tags from the Munsell student book. Here’s an example, matching the value 7 chip:
Mix white with ivory black until you have the exact value of the chip you’re matching. In this case, we’re after the value 7 tag.
Mix it on your palette until you think you’re really close, then paint a dab on the small piece of acetate. With the value tag flat on the palette, place the acetate chip over the tag. Squint your eyes. Try to see whether your value is too light or too dark.
Adjust accordingly and try again.
This process of matching may seem simple, but in practice it’s not – especially if you’ve never tried to do it before. At first, you’ll find that the values you mix will be out by a wide margin. Gradually, you’ll get better. Eventually, you’ll be able to match the Munsell value tag exactly. Then you can move on to the next step.
Now you’ve matched the value, but your version isn’t a true neutral. If you’ve used titanium white and ivory black, it will look distinctly cool against the Munsell value tag.
So we need to warm it up a bit.
Take some burnt umber and mix it with white until you get the same value again. Check it as before by putting some on the piece of acetate and holding over the tag from the Munsell book.
At this point, you should have a “cool” value 7 and “warm” value 7.
Place them across from each other on the palette, and place some of the cool value in the middle. Make sure you leave some of the cool value over in case you need to adjust again.
Now take a little of the warm value 7 and mix it into the cool value in the middle. When you think you have something near the colour of the Munsell tag, dab a little onto your acetate chip and test it against the Munsell tag. Keep adjusting it until you have it right.
No, not close – bang on! Keep trying until it is. This is where you really stretch your sensitivity to value.
Now you have your value mixed you can use it to make your own tag. Get one of your pieces of card and paint the neutral value you’ve mixed onto it. Paint it as smoothly as you can.
This picture shows the value 7 tag complete, and the value 6 tag being painted:
This is optional, but it can help with the darker values especially: Once the paint has dried, varnish each tag you’ve made with gloss varnish – NOT MATTE because that will change the value of the lower values. This will make it possible for you to wipe them clean, and preserve the values better over time.
Once you’ve done this with all the values in the scale, make one tag just titanium white and one just ivory black, that’s it, you’ve made your value scale.
You’ll notice that in the Munsell student book there’s no value 1 tag for you to match. That’s because it can’t be printed accurately in matt finish. Your ivory black will be about a value 0.5, so you can either skip the value 1, or try to mix it yourself – somewhere between your ivory black tag and your value 2 tag, but closer to the black one. Trying to guess it will be good practice.
All set? Great. Congratulate yourself on doing some really valuable value practice!
In a future post (coming very soon) I’ll demonstrate how to use this scale to judge the values you see more accurately, and to use this scale to make value studies that will surprise you with their realism. Seriously, I guarantee it.
Want to see this done in practice?
Just pop your email address in and I’ll immediately send you a link to the video.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,