Value - The Star of the 7 Elements

by lesley // posted on Aug 21, 2017

Looking back it's obvious my focus was on rendering a subject realistically and using the prettiest colours I could mix.  Once I began understanding what all the fuss was about, I began to notice exciting results.

Value, simply put, is the lightness or darkness of a colour.

You're familiar with a value scale.  The scale runs from pure white to black with roughly nine gray tones in between.  Any colour has a similar scale from dark to light.  This scale helps determine the value level of a colour which is defined by three attributes:

HUE is the colour family name, for example BLUE

CHROMA is the relative brightness or intensity such as bright or dull

VALUE is the relative lightness or darkness

Lighter values on the value scale = tints (highlights)
Darker values on the value scale = shades (shadows)

Master artists tell us that if the values in a painting are correct, the painting will hold together regardless of the colours used.  I'm now a believer.

The arrangement of values in a painting lead to the illusion of a light source when positioned correctly and values define objects.

A Woman's Touch

This piece is a good example of values at work.

See how the lightest gray tells us where the light source is the strongest.  A mid-gray value informs us of the shadow cast by the flowers and the darkest grays indicate shadows under the chair and dresser while also accentuating the imperfections in the plank floor.

Three values are apparent in the blanket in the lower left corner.  Without the value range, the blanket would be flat, without would have to guess at what that shape was meant to be.

You can see the value range in the warm browns of the walls.  Lightest where the sunlight hits and darker in the shadows as your eye wanders to the left away from the light source.

Most artists probably didn't have the struggle I experienced with "getting" this, it all seems so simple now.  But just in case value is still a mystery...

Here's four observation strategies to help see value.

  1. Squint: ignore the colour information by squinting.  This allows less detail and colour information into the eye while retaining the value information.

  2. Look for borders and edges: some will be distinct, others fuzzy.  If there is no clearly defined edge between two shapes, they are similar in value and should be grouped into one shape.  The fewer values used, the more impact an image will have.

  3. Look for "absolutes": the absolutes refer to the extreme ends of the value scale - pure white and black.  This gives us a frame of reference for all the subtle grays in between.

  4. Understand relative values: when making value judgements pay attention to what's next to or around the value in question.

If you've made it to the end of this post, congratulations, you have what it takes to be a painter: curiosity, persistence, stamina.  On the other hand you may be a loyal friend or relative who's covering your ass in case the next time I see you, I may ask: "Did you read my blog this week?"


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