You love art and it moves you emotionally when you look at it. You would really like to try your hand at creating a drawing, but don’t know where to start. Starting anything complex can be overwhelming, not just learning to draw. When drawing what marks should you put down on paper first? You can’t possibly draw every detail. What is the most important thing to focus on as beginner artist?

What is Value?

Value is the lightness or darkness of our world. It’s actually a component of color, but let’s save that for another post. There are many elements that make up a successful drawing, but value is one of the most important. For representational works of art the ability to create and recognize values is detrimental.

Absolute Value in Drawing

When identifying values it is important to set bounds; the minimum and maximum limits of value are white and black. In a drawing we cannot have a value lighter than white and we cannot have a value darker than black. I know that the previous statement may sound obvious but, it needs to be stated. Black and white becomes our limits when drawing.

Sometimes it’s difficult to identify value when colors are involved. For instance, is green closer to black or is red closer to black? Answer: it depends on their values. The easiest way to identify a value within one’s subject matter is to ignore the color; do this by converting that same scene into a gray scale representation. This is precisely what I recommend a beginner artist to do when they are observing the values within a portrait, still life, or landscape. While I highly recommend working from direct observation it can be beneficial for beginners to have ways of checking and correcting their artwork. You can do this by photographing the subject matter and converting it to gray scale. Once all the color information is gone you are left with only values! Perfect for checking over your artwork and learning how to see.


Describing Value

There are 5 terms you should get used to using when referring to value. Rather than list them here, please take a look at the value scale diagram below to get an idea of how artists describe values. Essentially anything closer to white is referred to a light value and anything closer to black is a considered a dark value.

5 step even value scale

Relative Value in Drawing

Artists will also describe value in a relative sense. Values can be distinguished as being either lighter or darker than one another even if they are close together.

comparing values

The value labeled B is darker than value A, however they are both light values. With hundreds even thousands of values possible in your subject matter it can be tricky comparing them all. With some strategies you will be able to see value as it relates to one another.

Seeing Value When Drawing

Skilled artists are very good at comparing values and can make it seem so easy. Experienced artists sometimes take for granted the brainpower and frustrations employed by beginners trying to learn how to draw. Take your time and ask yourself many questions regarding values when you are learning to draw. It is extremely beneficial to identify your darkest elements and lightest elements before you begin drawing anything. This sets the value boundaries and helps keep all your other values within a proper range. Once you have identified your value extremities you need to determine the value hierarchy that exists within your subject matter. How does each element compare to one another in terms of value? You might even consider writing this hierarchy down. List all objects or even parts of objects on a scale of one to ten; one being lightest and ten being the darkest.

Squinting your eyes so that your vision is slightly blurry allows you to compare values very effectively; it’s one of the best tricks I have ever learned for drawing and painting. Squinting makes subtle details such as textures average out to become fewer, simpler values and at the same time makes the comparison of values easier to decipher. That is excellent because ignoring details and comparing values is precisely what you should be doing when starting a drawing.

Even Values

In order to shade objects with flat sides you will need to shade using even values. Even values stay one constant value with no fluctuation. Objects with flat sides such as buildings and books typically should be shaded with even values. You can improve your skills through practice exercises. Try creating a 5 step value scale like the one that is displayed above. Try to make each box one value with no fluctuations whatsoever. This includes edges too! It’s not easy, but with practice you’ll get better at it. When you master the 5 step value scale try a 7 step value scale. This will be even more difficult to gauge each value and display unchanging edges between each value. Ideally you should practice until you have mastered a 10 step value scale.

Graded Values

To be able to draw well you will also need the ability to create graded values. Graded values are areas of value that transition from one value to another. We find them in any object that has curved sides such as vegetables and body parts. A great way to develop your shading ability is to practice creating graded value scales in much the same way you practiced the even value scale. When practicing graded value scales try to create one ever changing value from white to black with no abrupt changes. Your first attempts can be shorter in length, but as you gain more experience you should challenge yourself by creating longer value scales that transition flawlessly from white to black in a smooth, predictable manner.

graded value scale |

Looking Forward

It’s difficult enough to draw accurately without having to struggle with your tools. Whether using charcoal or graphite pencil it is wise to master the ability to shade graded values and even values. Doing so will progress your skills on any subject matter with each drawing attempt. Master your ability to detect values and establish a value hierarchy within your drawing and you will propel your artwork forward at an exponential rate.

In future posts I’ll be discussing more ways to utilize and recognize values within your drawings.

As always I’d love to hear your response to this post. If you have any questions or comments please get in touch below!

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