Artist Tools to Help Understand Painting with Values

Save for later & Share!

Tools for Painting with Values

Did you know Winsor and Newton publishes a series of mini painting-tip videos? (You can subscribe to W&N here.)

This tip (watch it here) is about same-value color fields to create depth, add interest.

Suggest atmosphere in broad passages where you might otherwise use a single, flat color. Very useful, I think. Do you already do this in your work?

glazing in watercolor
First washes of pigment over a watercolor pencil sketch

What is Color Value in Watercolor Painting?

Value is a challenging concept for many new artists. The directive to “squint” to find them, looking back and forth to compare source material and the painting in process can be frustrating if you don’t know what you’re looking for. When I first started painting, I had trouble with values too, so I used tools to help get my brain wrapped around the idea.

Tonal values are critical. The lights and darks contribute more to the success of a painting’s composition than any other factor, including color. In fact your painting will really only be as good as the tonal values.  

Greg Albert  The Simple Secret to Better Painting

beginning watercolor
Flat planes of color in graded washes (or glazes) before adding drybrush textures

Value = Luminence

Value in painting refers to luminance – the lightness and darkness of a color, without any consideration for its hue (color).

In a black to white gradient scale (below), we can see – clearly – which square of color is lighter or darker than the other.

The challenge for many artists is to identify this value scale in color.

And then, to apply that “visual filter” to the source image for the painting, and the colors being mixed on the palette, and the results when pigments are applied next to other colors on the painting.  

It’s a tall order if you’re new to the concept.

Value scale, showing gradient values between Black and White

Value Does All the Work

Painters say color gets all the credit but value does all the work.

Painting with color-alone, without regard for value seems more accessible, and beginning painters reach for that fruit from the lower branches on the tree, which is totally okay if that’s what floats your boat in your art-making.

If you’d like the option of rendering accurate values, a few adjustments can have a profound impact on the readability, the believability and the appeal of your art.

So, What’s with the Squinting?

Seasoned artists squint to see value (and shape). By squinting, you’re looking at your source material through eyelashes, and a smaller “view-finder” simulated by partially closing your lids. Try it. You’ll find, with a little practice, that squinting does several things:

  • the tiny details and edges get blurred together & broad, textural passages flatten out
  • colors soften and become less pronounced in the scene
  • edges get lost making bigger shapes more visible
The scene on the left of this banner has lots of detail, but when you squint (the middle panel) shapes are simplified, and it’s easier to locate the darkest darks and brightest lights.

Lots of Details vs Accurate Values

It’s easy to get sidetracked by documenting every leaf, and vein and palm frond if you painted the scene above.

The middle panel – even though it’s blurred – keeps the integrity of the composition and the color information suitable for a painting reference.

You know exactly what you’re looking at. Your brain fills in the details for you. #smartbrain That’s what you gain with squinting; simplify shapes, softening colors and showing values.

Get those foundations in order first, and then, if you want to paint every little bump on a branch, go for it, because you’ll have a solid underpainting of values shimmering beneath your details.

Using Black and White SnapShots to Understand Values

The last panel above has all color removed, which shows the values clearly.

Try squinting at these images, and look for lights and darks in all three of the photos.

Can you see the lightest lights (the tips & reflections on the red leaves in the foreground plants), and the darkest darks (the palm tree in the upper right corner, the trees next to it, and the stems of the red plants) in the color version as well as the black and white?  

Is it easier to find the darkest darks in the blurry version, or the sharp version of the photo?

I flattened the value to mid-range (the middle of the black-to-white value scale) in the same reference photo. The image on the left still has color, and the red leaves are just a bit lighter than the background values. On the right, the color is removed from the same image. Try squinting at this version. Do you see lighter values – by just a smidgen – in the color version of the red plants?

The Value of Color Values

Values create a focal point, because the human eye is attracted to lights and darks side by side.

Areas in your art that have lightest points next to darkest points attract the eye to those transitions in your composition.

You can move the viewer’s eye strategically through a painting by mapping where you place the boundaries between bright lights and saturated darks.

Once the eye lands on those pin-points, value invites the viewer to roam through the rest of the painting.

Carol Marine is masterful at using values in her landscapes and still life paintings.

Trick the Eye

You can also create the illusion of depth by graduating values from light to dark. Transitions between light and dark give the illusion of three dimensional form when painting still life or the figure. When painting curved objects, it’s effective to lay in values that shift very, very gradually.

Values in painting are also affected by the environment they’re nestled into.

Colors can look brighter or darker depending on values immediately around them. If you get the value right on your palette, you’ll benefit from squinting to check them frequently after you lay them into your painting, because those brush strokes will be affected by their neighboring colors and values.

The top of the gray cube and the bottom appear to be different values. The dark and light shading at the seam tricks the eye. Use your finger to cover the boundary between the two grays to see that they’re exactly the same shade.

Value vs Contrast

Value often gets confused with contrast.

Value is the amount of light and dark within a placed swatch of color.

Contrast describes the boundary between those colors.

Your camera will reveal how contrast affects visibility. If a sunlit object is shown against a bright, sunlit sky, your camera may not discern enough contrast to collect details of the image, because the boundaries aren’t visible.

The same image with the contrast turned up – lost boundaries in the bright areas, and just a few boundaries in the darks.

Tools to help with Value

Artists trying to learn values can get a helping hand by snapping a photo of the scene with a phone, and changing the image to black and white. An app I use is – Accuview ($1.99).  It will change your image to black and white, and overlay a grid on the scene to help with drawing and placement on your canvas or paper.

Below is a value scale card and filter made by Picture Perfect. (You can purchase one on Amazon here.) [affiliate]

Using Red and Green Filters to Help Understand Values in Painting

Red or green acetate filters help painters identify relative values.  

If you look through a red colored filter at a scene, everything – trees, lawns, buildings –  will be seen as different shades of red.  

If you don’t want a packaged value finder, you can also purchase a sheet of red acetate from Amazon, like this one,  [affiliate] but the price is about the same for either option.

This value finder [affiliate]  comes in red and green bars of plexiglass, which is a less fragile option for keeping in a plein air painting backpack.

It Takes Time

These tools are all great for helping us understand lights and darks and midtones in values, and I recommend them if you’re struggling with the concept.  

I found that using filters really helped me grasp the concept of values, and I eventually learned how to squint every few minutes or so while working to get my paintings closer to my goals.

If I still get suck, I snap a shot of the painting in process, and transfer it to black and white, and compare that to a black and white image of my source material. There’s no harm in checking, so if you’re in doubt, do that.

Keep Trying

Art is one of the few places where nothing bad will happen to you if you take chances. You’re just manipulating  pigments on paper or canvas with a hairy-tipped stick.

Take lots of chances and stretch your art muscles. Really good art takes a really long time. Be patient with yourself, and fire your inner critic before you ever pick up a brush.

Just make sure you do the work. We don’t get better by thinking about it, looking at it, studying how other artists do it. Practice.

Give Yourself Time

Seeing with an artist’s eye is an acquired skill, in every way – and it demands practiced application, like everything else we want to master.  

My grandfather used to say Ambition beats Talent, Hands Down. Muster your ambition, because we all have that, and practice looking for values all around you while you’re sipping coffee or waiting in line at the grocery store.

And keep in mind that everyone learns differently. If this post doesn’t make sense to you, try to google ‘What is value in artist colors’, and look at other descriptions, like this one.

drybrush techniques in watercolor
Using a bristle brush to scumble and drag broken bits of color over the citrus skin and leaf textures

Marinate in Art to Learn About Art

Well now, THAT was a lot to think about! If you’re new to values, I hope I didn’t overwhelm you.

If you have *any* questions, please type them into the comments.

There’s a wide, deep swath of artists on the trail, reading the comments here and there, and they’d be so happy to reach a hand back to help you move forward. Because we’ve all had to start at the beginning.

Have courage. You’ve got this.

I’ll see you in the next post –


P.S. You can subscribe to get these missives via email (free) by signing up here.

P.P.S. My friend Abbey Ryan is launching a new session of her Innernet course online. It’s an opportunity to unplug from the internet, focus inward, and spend a set amount of time, offline and painting. You can read more about it here.

Art Quote

Building a career is like knitting a tapestry. It’s small thread by small thread. It takes years. It becomes beautiful. And it’s something you can fall into when it’s done for comfort and security.

That tapestry becomes your network. A career is not what you created today, but the networks you built up today that will create unexpected opportunities for you ten, fifteen, twenty years later.

James Altucher
How to Title Your Art (<–Click here)

Save for later & Share!

9 thoughts on “Artist Tools to Help Understand Painting with Values”

  1. Randi Knight

    Hi Belinda – What a great article – thanks for putting so much time into writing it – I tried the Accuview app and man was that great ! do you know if there is a similar one for the the MAC I couldn’t find it – thanks !!

  2. Mary Ellen Gale

    Thanks. I’ve been hanging around and not painting but this inspires me to set something in motion.

  3. Marilyn Thuss

    Hi Belinda,
    You tackled a big subject and you did it so well! Thank you for this awesome lesson, and the links to other ways to learn this difficult concept. The grey cube was quite an eye opener. I enjoyed this post and I will go over it several times to be sure I digested it! You should be an art professor……really.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *