5 Ways to Kickstart Your Art – #1: Value is King!

(See the whole series here)

Tip #1: Value is King!

What is Value?

For the purpose of this blog, value is the lightness or darkness of any color on a scale from pure white to pure black. Some people will refer to it as tone, and you may see light and dark versions of a color referred to as tint and shade respectively, but we will simplify everything under the heading of value.

Value is Structure

It's so easy to get distracted by all of the colors and think that's what's holding the painting together, but they're just the frosting on the cake. If we took away our ability to see value and left only the ability to see color, the world would be a meaningless (and jarring) swirl of hues. On the flip side, colorblind people navigate the world just fine, and photography and film were art forms long before the introduction of color!

A rose without any color is still a rose. A rose without any value is a hot mess.

A rose without any color is still a rose. A rose without any value is a hot mess.

Color Has Value

Every tube of paint and every mixture on your palette has a value. This is a quality apart from its intensity or neutrality (saturation), or where it falls on the color wheel (hue), and it's the most important quality for establishing depth and volume. Learn to see every color for its value first, and you'll be on your way to fixing flat compositions!

Placing the right value is often more important than the right color. This is why when Van Gogh painted himself in greens you still saw it as a face, not a head of lettuce.

How to Tackle Value

Try tackling value in isolation from color first:

  • Do a charcoal drawing or use a neutral paint plus white to do a black and white study of your composition.
  • Paint a tonal underpainting as your first layer, and then place colors on top.
  • Start with a black and white version of your photo reference, or if you're painting from life use your phone or camera on a greyscale setting to study at your scene.

Keep it Simple

Most value scales you'll see come in a range of ten values, and in reality any black and white photo will a lot more values than that. Personally though, I can't judge ten things against each other and still concentrate on painting. When you're learning value, limiting yourself to a minimum of three - light, dark, and a mid-tone - will give you some interesting compositions and really help you organize what you see.

The value scale that sits on my easel has only five values plus pure white and pure black. My paintings end up with many more of course, but staying with five for as long as possible keeps the values from eroding into contrast-less mush somewhere along the way.

See the Whole Picture

In representational painting, your light and shadow families are vital to establishing the depth of your scene. It can be so easy to focus on either the shadows or lights and see all of the values of that family with no relation to the whole scene. Be careful that nothing in shadow gets lighter than your midtones, and nothing in light gets darker than your midtones. This is biggest culprit when you have a flat composition, or objects that refuse to look round or insist on floating off the ground.

Be Careful of Extremes

White and black are colors we find in print more often than nature. Things are rarely every pure white or solid black, except in tiny accent points of highlight and deepest shadow. Used sparingly in small areas they can really make your painting pop! Overused, they lose their impact and flatten everything. Even paintings that seem very light or very dark (or a lot of both) will have most of their colors bunched almost to the ends of the scale, but only very small points of purest black and white.

On my own 5-value scale I've even moved black and white as 6th and 7th values on the end, so that the majority of the darks I use are almost black and almost white and I can come in at the end and really pop the contrast with my final accents!

Seeing a black and white dog as just "black" and "white" means you miss all the subtle values - and colors!

Seeing a black and white dog as just "black" and "white" means you miss all the subtle values - and colors!


Just like musical scales, time spent learning to see and use value will make the skill an intuitive part of your painting process. Have you struggled with value before, or had a painting where value made all of the difference? Please comment with your story!

Read All 5 "Kickstart Your Art" Tips Here!

If you want a Free Download of my 5-Value Scale - the version I use in my own studio - sign up below! Plus, I'll also send you a handout of the "Top 3 Mistakes Artists Make With Value (& How to Fix Them!)."

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