You’ll often hear accomplished painters talking about the importance of values.
The reason is simple: value is one of the foundations of realistic drawing and painting. In fact, if you were to pressure me, I’d say it’s the foundation.
Why do artists talk about values so much?
Well, I think I know why from my own experience. Let me tell you a (very short) story.
Like a lot of aspiring artists, when I decided I wanted to improve my drawing and painting I spent a lot of time thrashing around, trying things out, and not making much progress.
I was very frustrated with my still life paintings, but didn’t know what to do to make them better. I knew there were problems, but I didn’t know what they were.
I tried a lot of different things, but it was when I started to focus on my values that things finally started to change.
The difference was amazing:
Light came into my paintings, together with depth and form. The things I painted started looking real. I also found that if the values were good, I could be as loose as I liked with the paint, and the picture would still work. In fact, the looser I painted, the better it looked.
That’s the real secret of Sargent’s famous bravura brushwork – it works because he gets his value relationships right.
What is Value?
Just in case you’re confused about what I mean when I say “values”, I’ll give you a quick definition:
Value is the lightness or darkness of a colour, from black at one end of the scale to white at the other.
If you’re drawing with charcoal, you’re working with value. If you take all the colour out of a picture and reduce it to greys, you’re looking at the values of the picture.
If you want to read about what I did to improve my values, it starts here. Read that first post, then the five others linked from it at the bottom of the page.
Why you should care about your values
Value control gives you almost – almost – everything you need to create convincing pictures. And also beautiful ones:
1. Value creates light, form and visual depth.
Even very simple pictures that are built only on value and nothing else can still have all these three things. This simple value study was done only in neutral grey paint. Hopefully you’ll agree, it has visual depth, a feeling of the solidity of the form of the objects, and a convincing feeling of light. All that, with no colour at all:
2. Value is a key part of a good composition.
Muddy, unclear values give you a befuddled and confused composition. Clear, strong value statements give you pattern and design. You achieve this by simplifying your values. Here’s a quote from Andrew Loomis:
“If you base your pictures on big basic truths and understanding you will do good ones. If you sit and putter with effects, allowing yourself to guess rather than going out to find the truths you want, you will do bad ones.”
Make strong, accurate value statements and you will make strong pictures.
Once you have a clear idea of how value works as part of colour, you can use value to create powerful pictures. Here’s a great example from Monet. Look how the sun appears to glow in this painting:
But here it is again with the colour removed.
The sun has all but disappeared. It works because the value of the colour of the sun is exactly the same as the value of the sky behind it, creating a strong optical vibration. The hues are complimentary, which is what gives it that visual shimmer. But if the values weren’t the same, the effect would be lost.You can try this out for yourself in this clever demonstration.
So why are values so hard to get right?
There are two main reasons:
First, our brains lie to us about the values we see.
There are two ways of looking at value, the local and the perceived value.The local value is the value something is. If you were to paint a cube grey, the local value is the value of the paint you use.Perceived value is the value that a side of that cube appears depending on how much light is falling on it.Now, that might seem simple enough. But it’s very difficult to judge a perceived value accurately, because our brain has a strong tendency to make us paint the local value, instead of the perceived value. It’s that old left brain getting in the way again.Here’s a good demonstration of it:
Both of those two strips are painted with three values, white, black and mid grey half way between white and black. Both strips have been painted with exactly the same local values. But look how different the values appear. The value we see changes depending on how much light is falling on the surface we’re looking at.Now, your brain knows that the two white squares on those strips are the same local value on each strip. But look how different they really appear when you take them out of context and put them side by side – the two little squares superimposed on the top left.Try this: look at the lower of the two little squares on the top left of the picture. Now look at the white square on the bottom strip. No mater how much you try to convince yourself that they are the same value, the square on the strip at the bottom of the picture appears lighter. Your brain knows it “is” white.The same is true of the mid grey value in the centre of each strip. Left to your own devices, you’d assume that the two mid grey squares are much closer in value than they actually are if you take them out of context.
When this happens, it makes it very hard to judge values by eye. So don’t feel bad if you’ve been struggling with it.
Second, the range of our materials, from the darkest dark to the lightest light, is narrower than the range of values we see.
You can test this pretty easily yourself, I’ll show you how in a moment.
How to get your values more right
So let’s start taking some simple steps to start seeing value better.
First, you need to find a way to override your brain’s tendency to label by the local. Here’s how:
Get yourself a colour isolator. A colour isolator is just a small, square piece of grey card with a hole in the middle. Make the piece of card about 5 centimetres along each side, with the hole about 2 centimetres along each side.
Now, make a value scale. You can make yourself a three-step value scale really easily, but if you want to go the whole hog, here’s a couple of videos showing how to make a 9 step value scale with oils.
I did these videos a while ago and they’re a bit rough and ready, but they take you through making a 9-step value scale in detail.
Now, go around your house and start finding out what values you’re actually seeing. Hold your scale and your isolator up in front of a few things and see what the value is, like this:
The value scale in the picture above is from Liquitex, a grandly titled Liquitex ® Value Finder. You can sometimes get them from Amazon, but it’s easy to just make your own scale – and excellent practice too.
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In the picture above, I’m holding the scale and isolator up in front of a white wall in half shadow. The value it appears is a mid value, a value 5 on that Liquitex scale.
Next, try match a few of the values you see in charcoal or pencil, then holding the little value swatches you draw up against the value you tried to match to test them.
This step is important because it starts to tune your brain into seeing values as they really appear to you, and translating those values into drawing. It really helps you to begin overriding that powerful, labelling left brain.
Getting Values More Right
Once you try this simple exercise, you’ll probably realise quite quickly that you can use this simple combination of an isolator and a value scale to help you get your values more right when you’re actually painting, or drawing.
I’ll be covering how to do that in a future post.
If you find yourself struggling with value (and everybody does) hopefully this post has given you an idea of why, and also how you can take a small – but very effective – step in starting to see value more accurately.
Because it starts with seeing value better, and for that you need eye training.
It starts – and ends – with learning to see.
Best wishes, and thanks for reading,
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