I’m going to share with you an easy way to shade in a value scale using pencil, charcoal, and even paint. I’ll also be explaining why you should probably buy a value scale too if you are serious about getting better at your artwork.
What is a Value Scale?
A value scale can be considered not only a drawing exercise but also an important tool when trying to learn how to draw. Right now I’d like to focus more on what a value scale is but, before we’re finished I’ll show you how you can use value scales as a tool for improving your drawing skills!
In its simplest form a value scale is a rectangular shape that encompasses different values ranging from light to dark. Not sure what value means in art? Read this.
The example above shows 7 value steps ranging from white to black with several grays in between. Value scales can also be created using color. Here’s the same example this time using the color red:
Value scales can have as few or as many steps as you wish. We’ve been demonstrating how to draw a value scale consisting of 7 different values but you can certainly change that. It becomes more difficult when trying to draw a value scale with many value steps. So how do we create a value scale? I’m glad you asked!…
How Do I Draw a Value Scale?
When starting out I recommend you create a value scale consisting of 5 values. This is much easier to do and will give you the confidence needed before moving on to more difficult drawings. Here’s a step by step plan for drawing your first value scale!
- To create a value scale, begin by drawing out a rectangle and subdividing it into 5 even boxes. Grab a ruler and get going!
- Next begin shading the last box (it will eventually be black), but don’t shade it in completely dark right away. You’ll get better results if you add many layers of pencil and arrive at the desired value over time rather than right away. After you’ve shaded the last box move to the second to last box and shade it in slightly lighter. Keep repeating this process for each box, only making each one lighter in value than the previous box.
- At this point you should have a value scale that looks very light similar to the last example above. Continue this process several more times working from the dark end of the value scale towards the light end of the scale.
It’s okay to press harder to achieve your darkest values but remember to layer your pencil as well. A layered approach to shading will always look the best! In the creation of this drawing exercise each time I added a new layer of pencil I choose to use a darker pencil.
Use a random circular motion when shading and you’ll get the most professional, smoothest looking results from your pencils.
Learning to Draw
Creating value scales is a great exercise for learning how to draw. If you have ever taken a drawing class your art teacher probably made you draw one. The 5 step value scale we worked on above is a great starting point but if you really want to test your drawing skills it would be a good idea to go through the same exercise, but with more boxes. In other words, can you draw a value scale consisting of 9 distinct values that progress from white to black?
Remember I mentioned that the value scale can also be a valuable drawing tool? Check this out: Once you have an accurate value scale in your possession you can use it to discover values in anything you’re trying to draw:
- Hold up the value scale in front of the actual subject matter you are drawing.
- Choose a value on the scale that is closest to the subject matter. This requires moving around the scale until you line up the value that is closest with the values you are looking at.
- Now you have a good idea for what value you need in your drawing. Now match your drawing to the correct value you just discovered!
- Repeat this process for as many parts of your drawing in question.
This process of comparing reality to your drawing in terms of values is a really time-intensive, but a very accurate way to learn how to draw.
If this type of work, quantifying what you are seeing, is something you find interesting you are definitely not alone. Albert Munsell developed a system for quantifying colors and values in the early 1900s. His system uses 11 different values. The Munsell system of color is taught and used by some of the artists associated with the Grand Central Atelier art school in New York. I know first hand because I recently took and amazing painting class there!
Although an expensive investment, the Munsell color system is an excellent way to take your realistic, full-color artwork to then next level and really get a handle on scientific-based color theory.
Types of Value Scales
So far we have been discussing what is called an “even value scale” which is one of the two basic value scales an artist can create. If you jumped right to this section this is what an even value scale looks like:
Even value scales are a fantastic way to practice your drawing skills. Another skill you will need to develop as an artist working on paper will be the skill of shading with graded values. This is where the graded value scale comes into play. Check out the graded value scale below:
How would you draw this type of value scale? Very similar to the way we drew the even value scale.
Start near the end of the scale you wish to be black and slowly work your pencil strokes towards the white end of the scale. Remember not to achieve your final values right away. Make several passes from the dark end to the light end of the value scale. It’s the layering that will complete the smooth transition from black to white.
Make a Value Scale using Pencils
The process outlined above is exactly how I would shade in a value scale with pencil. While I advocated starting at the dark end of the scale and working towards the light end that is not the only way to accomplish the value scale. An artist could also get great results starting near the lighter end and working towards the darker end of the value scale. The final result is what matters. Do what works for you! One thing is for sure…the more layers you use the smoother your results will be.
Holding your pencil near the end, opposite the tip, makes it much easier to shade extremely light values.
Using a variety of pencil grades from the h-pencils to the b-pencils will also make this drawing task easier. Consequently, using a range of pencils will also make sure that your dark values reach a maximum value that is as close to black as possible. Read this post on pencil grades if you need a refresher on what the different pencils can do for your artwork.
Shading Value Scales in Charcoal
Can I shade a value scale in charcoal? Absolutely. It’s very much the same process as the drawing process outlined above. Charcoal tends to be messy though, so if you ever want to create an extremely neat value scale in charcoal you can mask off the edges or use your kneaded eraser to clean up the edges of the drawing afterwards. Check out this old video I made many years ago showing the process:
In the video I’m using both vine charcoal and compressed charcoal to get the job done!
Painting a Value Scale
By now you probably have a good idea for drawing value scales but how does all this translate into painting? The concept is the same but when using paint you won’t be relying on layering or pressure to create your values. When painting you need to mix different values on your painter’s palette and then paint them into position. You can’t press harder with your paint brush and expect to get a darker paint!
You can do it! Apply white paint and black paint to your palette and premix the 3 gray values in between right on your palette. Then complete your painted value scale. It’s that simple! Be sure to wipe your paint brush clean before changing values.
While I do recommend drawing your own value scales, especially at first, your finished drawings will be drawn on paper and are typically not very durable. You can buy a pre-made value scale and they are usually made of more durable cardboard. Some even have useful holes in them or wedges cut out of the side. These holes make comparing values easier as I described towards the beginning of this tutorial. Basically you can look through the hole and compare what you are seeing to the value in the appropriate part of the scale.
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