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Using Grayscale and Tonal Values in Landscape Painting

I've been painting professionally since 1994 using acrylics, oils, pastels, and watercolor.

Where do you start when painting a landscape?

Where do you start when painting a landscape?

Grayscale and Tonal Values in Painting

Breaking your subject down into grayscale and tonal values is the best place to start when beginning a landscape painting. It helps you to:

  • Establish the composition
  • Create interesting shapes
  • Act as a guideline for tonal values as you start to apply color

Starting with a preliminary sketch using a grayscale is probably one of the best ways to get ideas about the composition of the painting. You can easily manipulate the values to your satisfaction or quickly do several sketches with different ideas.

If you have photo-editing software that enables you to change the photos into a grayscale version, that is a good place to start.

Although the initial sections of this article relate to landscapes, the techniques can be used in any painting if it makes it easier for you to plan.


What Is the Grayscale?

For clarity, the grayscale we will be using consists of 10 gray tonal values ranging from #1: White, to #10: Black.

There are scales that have more levels and scales that look at black as #1. If you are using Corel Painter, their color wheel uses #1 as black and #10 for white.

Check the reference scale you are using so you don't get confused with the explanation that follows.

I started with this color photo.

I started with this color photo.

I converted the color photo to grayscale.

I converted the color photo to grayscale.

Step 1: Convert Your Photo to Grayscale

Taking the photo above, I went into my photo-editing program and changed the picture to its grayscale version. In my software, I clicked on "Image," then "Mode," and then "Grayscale."

This is different than the desaturation feature found in some software. If that is your only choice, however, it gives similar results.

Look at this picture and the grayscale and identify the various groupings:

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  • Light tonal values (#2 and 3)
  • Mid tonal values (#4 and 5)
  • Dark tonal values (#6 and 7)

I've decided that the sky would be light, the tree on the right would be dark and everything else would be mid tonal values.

Don't panic by saying "But there are mid and light values in the tree on the right." That is OK. This is just a guide for laying out your painting. Those other values will be added in as you actually do the painting.

Draw in the three value areas

Draw in the three value areas

Step 2: Draw in the Three Value Areas

Either sketch the value areas on your sketch pad or create a new layer over the grayed photo and draw in the shapes of the three areas. This is my initial drawing. It helps me look at the shapes of the tonal areas.

The dark area on the right is very distracting to me with all the finger-like projections. It acts essentially as a straight overall line separating it from the two other values.

The two mid-values are broken up by a narrow light tone. I think I would prefer to have them joined for more continuity. I find the shape of the left tree interesting, but find the line separating the distant trees from the sky pretty boring.

It is time to make some revisions to the first sketch.

Here I revised the tonal areas

Here I revised the tonal areas

Step 4: Revise the Tonal Shapes

Here I made some significant changes to the dark area.

I joined the mid-values together and changed the silhouette of the trees.

In making these changes, I not only improved the flow of the dark and light areas, but look at how much more interesting the shape of the sky is.

I could make a few other minimal changes, but for now I think I'm happy with it and am ready to block in my painting. How you block in the painting or lay down color depends on what media you are using, but at least now you have a guideline of where to begin.

This method also helps to stop you from copying a photo exactly how it looks. You can focus more on achieving interest shapes, points of interest and depth by taking in environmental consideration in your tonal values.


Step 5: Convert Grayscale Values to Color Tonal Values

Now that you have established the values for a given area in your painting, you can start creating the appropriate color values for each area. I know that this is easier said than done, but there are several things you can do to help.

I find that using a glass palette with a mid-gray background under it helps to establish if the color I am mixing is darker, lighter or right in the mid-range.

I did this by painting the bottom of my seal-able palette box with a gray paint in the #4-5 range and then placing the clear glass over it.

Cutting a square hole in pieces of paper that are light gray, mid-gray and dark gray can be used as references to compare mixed color values either on the palette or on the painting.


Step 6: Test Your Tonal Values

Using my grayscale and value finder, I was able to test to see if I had achieved the tonal values I wanted and alter them if needed.

In this example, you can easily see that the tonal value of the violet is #3 which is just where I want it.

Grayscale Finder

Amazon has a very inexpensive grayscale and value finder that works really well. This small tool makes it easy to establish the value of any area in your painting in either black and white and color.


In this example, the leaf colors are #4 while the background is a #l or #2.

This is a good level of light/dark ratio helping the leaf to stand out from the background.


The third example shows that part of the leaf is #3, while another part of it is #4.

Using the value finder has made it so visibly easy to see the different color values as they compare to the grayscale.

To establish a value before you put it on the painting:

  1. Mix a color
  2. Paint a small sample on a piece of scrap white canvas paper or something similar
  3. Place the value finder over it
  4. Adjust the color value up or down as needed

Following the tonal value sketch from above, I mixed white and cobalt blue for the sky.

I added some orange and more blue to the next mixture for the mid-tones. I checked the values with the value finder before applying the mid-values.


I used the light blue tones for the sky.

Next, I put the mid-tones of the ground in and created the more interesting silhouette of the distant trees from my initial sketch.

I did not put the mid-tones in for the trees because I want to be sure that the sky shows through the tree limbs.


I used the value finder to check the levels and established that the sky was #2 and the foreground was #4.


I sketched in the outline of the rest of the mid-color value on the left.

On the right, I sketched in the outline of the dark values.

Big Rock Launch, Colton, NY

Big Rock Launch, Colton, NY

Completed Painting

Here is the completed painting. As I look at it, I see that I didn't completely follow the outline of the dark values on the right. This is all right, but I could change it if I wanted.


Making More Interesting Shape

The red line represents possible adjustments I could make.

  • It gives variety to the nearly straight alignment of the branches.
  • It also changes the alignment of the lower branches of both trees.

I would make these changes by painting over the areas I want to eliminate with titanium white and then blending in the blue of the sky so it wouldn't appear patched up.

Hope this demonstration helped. Give it a try yourself and see how it can help you in planning and completing your paintings.

Value Paintings

Here are several value paintings I did of some still-life arrangements I made.

Value painting of an egg

Value painting of an egg

Value painting of two pears and a mug

Value painting of two pears and a mug

Value painting of an onion, apple and squash

Value painting of an onion, apple and squash

Value Paintinga

I quickly sketched them with minimal detail. The main concentration was on the shapes of the items and how they related to each other in position.

I have never really done still-life painting so this is a new experience for me, but it was definitely easier than I expected.

It was a lot of fun also, and I plan to use it as a regular exercise when I feel like I need some motivation.

I highly recommend it and suggest that you keep it simple at first until you feel comfortable with it.


Using the Color Wheel Tool in Corel Painter

The color wheel in Corel Painter can make it easy for you to pick out the value of the color. As I mentioned above, their color wheel uses black as #1 and white as #10.

If you look at the Value (V) slider scale on the very bottom, you will see the number "0" in the bottom right corner. If you look at the color triangle, you will see that the cursor is on the black tip. This represents the #1 on the value scale.

Below shows the "V" slider set at "255" and the cursor is on the white tip. This represents the #10 on the value scale.


To save confusion because of the reverse scale. I will just talk about the three levels I discussed earlier; light, medium and dark tonal values.

If black is "0" on the "V" in Corel, than we would not want to use any value between "0" and "85." As we discussed earlier, any value darker than the "85" should only be used for areas, such as those under rock, or for small spots of emphasis.

The dark values you would use are between "85" and about "120."

Medium values would be from about "120" to "180."

Light values would be between "180" and "230."

Any value from "230" to "255" should be considered white and reserved for things like snow, waves or waterfall whites, bright clouds and anything where you really need to separate out the white.

Examples of the Three Value Ranges


Another Advantage to the Color Wheel Tool

There is another advantage to using the color wheel and that has to do with establishing the value of colors other that just the gray colors.

Here, looking at the "V" scale, we have established that we wanted the gray value to be "128" which is between a dark and medium value.

If we leave the "V" slider untouched and change the "S" slider, which is for "saturation," we can choose the exact color we want at the exact gray value we have chosen.

This same procedure would work for any color or hue. To change it, you would slide the "H" (Hue) slider to whatever color you chose and it would still be at the same gray value and saturation level.


Ben Reed from Redcar on August 18, 2013:

A wonderful tutorial - thank you.

Mommy-Bear on August 04, 2013:

Thank you for the information. I remember learning some of this at design school many years ago so it's great to find new information.

Judy Filarecki (author) from SW Arizona and Northern New York on July 31, 2013:

@SusanAston: Thank you so much for all your comments

SusanAston on July 30, 2013:

I can't paint but admire talented work like this very much.

bluelily lm on July 18, 2013:

Pictures in grey scales have their own charm and uniqueness. It registers a deep impression upon one's mind and stays for a long of time. And I prefer b/w over color photographs.

cmadden on May 12, 2013:

Well done explanations, a very useful tutorial!

maryLuu on September 01, 2012:

Very informative this lens. Thanks!

Judy Filarecki (author) from SW Arizona and Northern New York on July 25, 2012:

@Pam Irie: Hope it helps. Just have fun and experiment.

Pam Irie from Land of Aloha on July 24, 2012:

I've never been able to paint like that......but just the way you broke down the steps, gives me hope. :)

Judy Filarecki (author) from SW Arizona and Northern New York on July 19, 2012:

@ForestBear LM: Glad you liked it. Thanks

ForestBear LM on June 13, 2012:

Thank you for a fantastic tutorial

Judy Filarecki (author) from SW Arizona and Northern New York on March 22, 2012:

@CarlArmes LM: i'm glad you found it helpful. I frequently have to remind myself to use it, and when I do , it really helps.

CarlArmes LM on March 22, 2012:

Thank you for this Lens, it has reminded me about information I had completely forgotten, about the use of grey scale in pictures and how it gives a picture depth.

Judy Filarecki (author) from SW Arizona and Northern New York on January 31, 2012:

@SimplyTonjia: Thanks Tonjia

SimplyTonjia on January 30, 2012:

Nicely done lens on an important aspect of art. Thank you.

Judy Filarecki (author) from SW Arizona and Northern New York on October 02, 2011:

@indigoj: After having done this, it made me take a second look at some of my paintings and make adjusts in values. Thanks for the comments.

Indigo Janson from UK on October 02, 2011:

This is very interesting and helpful to aspiring artists everywhere. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Judy.

anonymous on September 30, 2011:

great start to your lens! Enjoyed the photos the best. If you like to browse lens as I do, mine has a great educational topic with poll questions for my readers to enjoy.