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The importance of Value in a painting

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

By Mary Fran Anderson

John Pike once said that “the ability to really see values is by far the single most important factor in watercolor painting”.

Don Andrews states “that there is a kind of contrast that draws the eye and says look at me more than any other possibility in painting. That possibility is the use of the lightest light against the darkest dark”.

Frank Webb states “the importance of using a value sketch or drawing to think through what you are going to paint, simplifying, designing, and rearranging until you find all the key elements of your painting, all except color”.

It appears that most successful watercolor artists or artists of any nature feel that value plays a predominant role when determining the composition of a painting. This is because depth is achieved on a 2-dimensional surface when using value.

Value in painting is related to color theory because it defines how light or dark a given color or hue can be based on a scale moving from the lightest light to the darkest dark.

Every watercolor workshop or class I have attended insisted that we students draw a value sketch (or a few value sketches) of the painting we plan to paint before we start the painting. The instructors often referred to these value sketches as thumbnail sketches or rough sketches. They are usually done quickly and tend to strip away excess information and focus mainly on the placement of shapes and their lightness and darkness to help with the design of the painting. Often in a value sketch, you will have light values, mid-tone values and dark values. The placement of the darkest shape against the lightest shape helps in creating the center of interest in your painting.

Here are some different types of tools that can be used to create a value sketch. These include:

  • Graphite sketches done with pencil and graphite sticks on white paper. Below, you’ll find some examples of value sketches done with graphite pencil:

You’ll note that I was strictly looking at the value in each sketch and wasn’t as worried about accuracy.

  • Chalk sketches done in middle grays and black chalks on white paper.

  • Magic markers in a variety of grays starting with very light gray and moving to black on white paper. Below, you’ll find some examples of value sketches done with gray colored markers from very light to black:

When viewing a scene or object to create a value sketch it is often helpful to squint your eyes while looking at the object or scene to better see the values.

Another helpful tool in determining value is using a Value Viewfinder like the two pictured here:

These value scales will enable you to find the matching gray tone to correspond to most colors. You simply place the gray scale over the color and squint your eyes. Where the color and gray seem to blend together through the holes you find the relative lightness or darkness of a color (or its value).

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