4 Tips on the Importance of Value in Painting

Without proper value, your paintings will be flat and dull.

As I begin my second year in watercolor painting, I wanted to touch on the importance of Value studies in painting.

I wish I had done this earlier, but value painting is one of the quickest ways to improve the quality of your work.  Up until now, I have instinctively used value in my work by ‘glazing’, as I learned in Frank Eber’s workshop.

However, it wasn’t until I took Vladislav Yeliseyev’s workshop in December, 2017,  almost 8 months into my painting, that I began to realize the importance of values in a painting.

This was painfully evident when I attempt my first value study.  I found the hardest thing to learn were the midtones in value.  It’s easy to make a first light wash and then immediately add darks, but the midtones ties the work together.

Using one color to highlight tones is called a ‘tonal study’.

Another thing that helps is consistency of color.  In a tonal study, we use one color (Burnt Sienna or Browns) to identify light, midtones and darks.  As I have found out, tonal value is more important than color in painting.  I have found that color should be a ‘foundation’ to a painting and should be thought of as ‘cool’ and ‘warm’.  The blues and purples in the ‘cool’ spectrum and yellows and reds in the ‘warm’ spectrum.

Use color or a “mother color” for your work and find color harmony by tying together color and tonal unity.  You can even squint your eyes when composing a work and painting to look for tone.  Squinting your eyes takes much of the color out of the subject, leaving you tonal values.

I’m giving a workshop this weekend in the Port Aransas Art Center and I will be discussing and demonstrating my painting process.  It is important to begin the process of painting and composition correctly and not get into any bad habits.  I make it a point to learn something from every painting and exercise.

This gave me an idea to go back, look at some of my first works and identify value in the work.  This is easily done by converting a painting to black and white, which will identify the tones in a work.

I recently took first place in our local watercolor society and wondered what made my winning piece read so well.  I knew it was something special because it combined a great composition with excellent tonal value.  So I took this work and converted it to black and white to see how it looked without the deep rich colors.

“Dock Inspection” – (Arches Paper 11 x 15 – Daniel Smith Watercolor Paints) – PRIVATE COLLECTION

This is the same work in 3 tones only and next to it is the black and white removing all color:

Here the work is rendered into light, middle and dark tone (3 tones).

This is the black and white version with the full scale of tones.

What I see immediately in this exercise is the juxtaposition of light and dark. The way the back of the boat contrasts against the focal point (guy on the ladder). Also, how the bottom of the boat hulls juxtapose against the lighter foreground and background.

Here, I see an important lesson.  Always try and counter or juxtapose lighter tones next to dark tones or cast shadows.

It’s also evident that the gradients in value create depth.  This is particularly true in landscape paintings.

If you break it down, tone does four (4)  distinct things in painting:

1. Value is used to create a focal point. 

As in this painting, the focal point is the juxtaposition of the man on the ladder against the light shown to the back of the boat.  The back of the boat has elegant lines that also contrast against the dark hull of the boat.

In many cases, the eye is first drawn to this focal point because of the contrast in value.  It immediately creates a focal point of interest.

2.  Value will create the illusion of depth.

Value can also create depth by placing stronger values to brings objects closer to the eye and lighten objects to push them back into a painting.  Other ways to create depth is by layering objects and overlapping them and using glazes.  This will help to bring objects more forward by increasing tone.

3.  Value gradients should be color consistent 

When values are placed, I typically now start with the 3 primary colors (red, yellow and blue) and mix variations of darker tones for that particular color.  Again, colors are placed initially as a backdrop to the painting, but values should darken and stay consistent somewhat to the primary color.  This is not always true, but there is a lot to be said concerning color harmony.

So, as I continue to paint now, I try and keep my pallet divided into 4 areas which includes my primary colors and subdivide those areas into darker values of the same colors.

For example, in my yellows, I will start with Hansa yellow and then to darken it using earth colors such as raw umber and van dyke brown.  For my blues, I start with cobalt blue, then Ultramarine and Indigo.  For my reds, Cadmium red, Alizarin Creimson to Dioxazine Violet.

To get almost a black color without using black, I mix ultramarine blue, Van Dyke Brown and Indigo with Dioxazine Violet.

4.  Values  to create balance and harmony in a painting

In my painting above, I’ve also used values to balance my painting.  I’ve used 2 boats hulls to balance the central portion of the painting, also by having a dark value of the boat lift on the left boat working to balance the right side of the painting.  I’ve also used another figure on the right to balance the focal point.  He presents as a second focal point with his highlighted shoulders against the dark boat hull.

I’ve also juxtaposed his white tennis shoes against the dark cast shadow.

All of these elements, but more importantly, juxtaposing light against dark, brings this painting to life and excites the viewer.  Of course , capturing light and balancing light in painting is crucial.  And that is what painting and art is all about!

Happy painting!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: