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Why Painting Value/Tone Is More Important Than Color

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

The value of a visual element measures how light or dark it is. Value is an essential element in drawings and paintings. Learn how value is the key to a successful painting, not color.

The value of a visual element measures how light or dark it is. Value is an essential element in drawings and paintings. Learn how value is the key to a successful painting, not color.

Using the Value Scale to Find Color Tone

When we describe a color as "light" or "dark," we are discussing its value or "brightness." This property of color tells us how light or dark a color is, based on how close it is to white.

The lighter the color, the higher its value. For instance, lemon yellow would be considered lighter than cerulean blue, which in turn is lighter than black. Therefore, the value of lemon yellow is higher than cerulean blue and black.

The easiest way to remember this dimension of color is to visualize the "gray-scale," which runs from black to white and contains all of the possible monochromatic grays. This scale helps artists understand and identify light, mid-tones, and darks more easily.

You will have a better view of values if you squint your eyes, squeezing them as in bright sunlight. Looking through your eyelashes filters the colors out, letting you see values better.

Value Does the Work, Color Gets the Credit

Color is the most attractive quality of a painting, but believe it or not, value is more important than color to the design and success of a painting.

Think of a black-and-white movie. All you can see is made visible by value contrast. Color is totally extra to understand what is going on.

In the painting world, color is what viewers of will notice most, therefore the value of each color is important in determining the success of the composition.

"Garment Study For A Seated Figure" Leonardo Da Vinci (1470-1484) Brush and grey distemper on grey canvas

"Garment Study For A Seated Figure" Leonardo Da Vinci (1470-1484) Brush and grey distemper on grey canvas

The Value Structure Is the Skeleton of a Painting

For the success of a painting, a painter should approach it as a value problem, an arrangement of light and shadow. Value is the skeleton upon which the painting is constructed; color and detail add local interest.

  • Value contrast is used to create a focal point within a painting or drawing.
    The human eye is immediately drawn to a light element against a dark element. This creates the focal point of interest.
  • Gradations of value are also used to create the illusion of depth.
  • Areas of light and dark give a three-dimensional illusion of form to the subject matter.

I like painitngs that have the full reach of values, from the deep darks to sparkling lights.

— David Ligare, artist

"Mona Lisa" simplified into a two-value image

"Mona Lisa" simplified into a two-value image

How to Use a Value Scale

To get the values right, you have to do continuous work of comparison between parts of the reference image and parts of the ongoing painting.

Look at the reference picture, composition, or scene you want to paint, and find the darkest shapes or areas. Compare them to the other areas of the picture. See how they relate to each other in terms of lightness and darkness.

Hold your value scale in front of the picture and see how each area compares to the gray scale on the chart. The darkest dark on the picture might have for example a value of 3. Now hold the scale up in front of your painting and check the value of your paint. No matter what color you used to deliver the correct composition and structure, the value should be consistent.

Keep comparing. Look at the middle value in the reference photo and see how they compare. If the middle value is a 5, paint that on a value 5 color and do the same comparison for the lightest lights. Never get tired of comparing the relationships between values in the picture and in the painting.

Color can be tricky, you may think you can render a value 9 area with a yellow, but when you compare to your gray-scale chart you may be surprised to see that the yellow you used corresponds to a 6 or a 7.

The image shows three "colors" in the Munsell color scheme. Each color differs in value from top to bottom in equal perception steps, while keeping the "hue" and "chroma" constant.

The image shows three "colors" in the Munsell color scheme. Each color differs in value from top to bottom in equal perception steps, while keeping the "hue" and "chroma" constant.

Value Proportions in a Painting

For a painting to be effective, you should vary the proportional amount of area occupied by each value, applying a formula of most – some – and a bit.

Varying the values this way is much more interesting than dividing them equally. Identify the biggest area value, then the value you have less, and the one you have just a little bit of, like in the examples here. In each case, the smallest area naturally becomes the center of interest. The largest value area becomes the dominant value group.

If the largest area is light values, the painting is said to be on a high key. If the largest is dark, the painting is in a low key.

In the examples below, there are six possible variations of combining the value patterns according to the most – some – and a bit rule. The smallest area has conveniently been placed on one of the sweet spots, by the rule of thirds, and becomes the center of interest.

Variation of value patterns

Variation of value patterns

Ways to Practice Painting Value

  1. Paint a Monochrome Painting is a great way to practice values. To do so, you need to look at your subject and simplify what you see, finding the large abstract shapes. Take it down to 4 main values: darkest, lightest, and two middle values.

    Paint the shapes that you see, rather than the object you are trying to depict. Think abstract patterns of shapes. In the end, it will all make sense and come together in a simplified representation of your subject.

    For oil, paint on a burnt umber ground, wipe it down to a mid value, paint in the darks, and wipe out for lights (with a paper towel or cotton swabs, try dipping in mineral spirits for the really white stuff). Use only burnt umber (or raw umber)—no white.

    For those using acrylic, you can mix your values with black and white.
  2. Draw with graphite pencil or charcoal. Drawing is another great practice exercise to get comfortable with values. Draw without colors, use only values. Practicing drawing and sketching will give you a better understanding of values and a deeper knowledge of how to use value to create depth, texture, and highlights.
Sea view in Trieste, Italy

Sea view in Trieste, Italy

A value study makes it much easier for you to mix the right colors for each area.

A value study makes it much easier for you to mix the right colors for each area.

You Can Check Values by Digital Desaturation

Another way to check your progress with values is to take a photo of your artwork, download it to your computer, and, using Photoshop or another image editing software, desaturate it.

Once you digitally take all colors out, you will be able to see values without any distractions by colors.

An even quicker way is to set your digital camera to black and white photo and look at the picture in the viewer of the camera. No need to take the photo, unless you want it for later reference.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What does tone mean in a painting?

Answer: Tone in painting is also referred to as value, and it means how light or how dark a color is.

© 2012 Robie Benve


Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on June 30, 2020:

Hi Jane, so glad you found some useful tips in my article. Drink and tutorial sounds lovely, I wish we could do that, ah, making friends while creating together, one of my favorite things. Hopefully gatherings will be safe again soon. :) A word of wisdom: sometimes paintings gone wrong happened to teach us a lesson, and instead of trying to salvage them, it's easier to start over. Not sure if that's the case of the watercolor you are describing, but it's true in many cases. Thanks a lot for your kind words. Happy painting!

Jane Sidney Oliver on June 28, 2020:

Great article. Learned so much. Can now see what went wrong in my current watercolor painting. Now if only I could see how to fix it Can't you drop by for a drink and a tutorial? Well, sadder but wiser, and knowing that this is hard for everyone makes me feel better. Thank you very much.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 01, 2018:

Hi Prady, it sounds like you are doing the right things! Keep up practicing how to paint, and focusing on values, you'll go far. Happy painting!

Prady on July 13, 2018:

I should say this is a great read. Thanks for the article, it made me understand more about Value.

I would like to try on few reference pictures and see how it goes. I just started painting two months ago, so this is a really interesting thing to do.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 03, 2016:

Hi carole, understanding the value of colors is not easy. Learning to mix a color of a certain value, even more challenging. I am very happy to hear that my article helped you "getting it". :) Value is a concept that all artists have to deal with every day, and let me tell you, you are hardly alone in the daily struggle of mixing colors of the right darkness/lighness.

Thanks a lot for your feedback! .It made my day :)

carole villeneuve on August 02, 2016:

What an insightful article. I was grasping with this, and now I think I'm getting it, at least the theory. I have much difficulty in determining the right value of any given colour.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 04, 2012:

Georgina, it was such a revelation to me the day I could clearly see the difference between color and value, but I still get caught in color sometimes. The only cure for that is paint, paint, paint; I'm trying to paint way to recovery. :) Thanks a lot for reading and your support. Ciao!

Georgina Crawford from Dartmoor on April 04, 2012:

A really good, well designed article about value. Thank you. I also like your tonal painting. I paint in pastels and it's very easy to get caught up in colour at the expense of value. I'm surprised this has not had any comments, but I do notice 'art' hubs can be overlooked. anyhow great hub.Rating up and following you.