Color: What Is Value | Understanding Value In Your Artwork

What is Value?

If you are eager to make fantastic works of art  you need to master your values within your artwork.


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What is Value

When artists describe the value of a color they are describing how light or dark that color is. Every color has a value. Some colors are naturally lighter than others but every color can be adjusted to be lighter or darker.  Value describes how close a color is to pure white or pure black. 

The value of an object can change drastically depending on the lighting conditions that affect the object. Depending on how dense the light rays reflecting off an object are, we will get a range of lightnesses and darknesses of colors.

Put any bright, cheerful color in a dark corner with little light and it will become darker in value. This stems from the fact that there is little light to strike the object and therefore little light to reflect off of the object making it look darker in value.

Describing Value

Take a look at the value scale 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.

7 Step Value Scale

One of the best ways I know of to describe the value of a color is to photograph it and convert that photograph to grayscale; this is sometimes referred to as black and white mode. Most smart phones can do this with a push of a button as well as any decent image editing software.

Don’t forget that value is a component of color. It’s one of color’s three properties. Here’s another value scale below showing 7 different values of purple.

purple value scale

What changes in the example above when comparing each block from left to right? Certainly not the purple hue. The value changes of course!

Mixing Values

If you were painting and you wanted to mix a lighter value of a color the easiest way you could do this would be to add white paint. For example: Cadmium red oil paint mixed with titanium white oil paint will make a lighter valued cadmium red oil paint.

Pretty simple right? Good.

The reverse is also true for making a color darker in value. We can add black to make a color darker in value. Adding mars black acrylic paint to chromium oxide green acrylic paint will make a darker value of chromium oxide acrylic paint.

The same holds true for dry, drawing media. The difference being you wouldn’t physically mix liquid colors as you would with paint, but rather you would let them mix together in layers upon your paper’s surface.

Colored Pencil Mixing Tip: When trying to mix different values with colored pencils it’s best to layer your pencils several times on top of one another. Say, for example, you wanted to make a blue colored pencil darker. Add a layer of blue colored pencil first, then on top add a layer of black colored pencil, then blue again. Keep adding layers back and forth until you arrive at your desired value and don’t press too hard with your initial layers of pencil or you may develop a waxy surface that prohibits future layers of pencil.

Photoshop Tip:  If you use Adobe’s fantastic photo editor you will notice that Photoshop calls value “lightness”. You can easily alter a color’s hue, value, or saturation by going to Photoshop’s top menu and choosing Image > Adjustment > Hue/Saturation… . That’s a fun thing to do!

PhotoShop > Image > Adjustment > Hue/Saturation -screenshot

Value First

Value is the most important attribute of color to master first. Your eyes will get better at discovering hues and your knowledge of saturation will grow with time.

You must learn to see and create values accurately now!

If you cannot get values correct your drawings and paintings will never appear quite right. I’ve written a ton of stuff to help out student artists learn the finer points of value. Type “value” into the search box for this website and you find tons of resources.

The best way to see and compare values is to convert a full-color image into a grayscale image, you can do this with a camera or computer. When working from real live subject matter and not a photograph you can squint your eyes.

Squinting your eyes is what artists do on-the-fly to discover the values in their subject matter and in their own artwork. You can read more about the squinting technique and some other import aspects of using and seeing value in your artwork in Everything You Need To Know About Value.

Mistaking Hue for Value

One of the most common mistakes I see young and even older artists making regarding value is when an artist wants to make a color lighter but ends up changing the color’s hue in the process.

This mistake is most popular when an artist attempts to lighten the value of a color such as orange or green but attempts to do so by adding yellow. Using yellow to lighten up orange may indeed lighten the value slightly BUT you are also changing the color’s hue. This is an important distinction to be made.

Mixing yellow and orange yields the hue yellow-orange which is certainly not the original orange hue we started with. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the previous example as long as the artist is aware of what’s happening.


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Did your art teacher teach you to squint your eyes during art class? 

4 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for the tips about shading. The Value Scale is so helpful, now I can actually see the difference in the lightness and darkness. I’m going through all the articles step by step, they are very helpful. I want to learn all I can. Can you please explain the pencils such as HB, 3B and so on. The difference in the pencils. I really appreciate the time you are taking out to help me.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Yes. It’s important to understand how the pencils differ. Check out this post and let me know if you are having any trouble.

  2. Can you please explain color for kids ?

    1. John Morfis says:

      You’d have to be more specific Mak, but please keep in mind this blog is aimed at teenagers through adults.

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