Learning to understand the value of values in a painting

Wedding picture

This picture was taken a year ago at my daughter’s wedding. It was supposed to be outside, only it rained. She was a beautiful bride. Don’t you love the boots!

I want you to squint your eyes when you look at the picture, What do you see? A blur of shapes? Keep squinting and you should notice that some of the shapes are dark and some are light.

I’ve learned that squinting is a valuable tool when you’re trying to see values. I didn’t have a clue what values were when I first learned to paint. It took me awhile to understand, not only what they were but also why they are important.

An aha moment came with this explanation: Value in a painting is the darkness or lightness of a color.

“When you’re making two-dimensional art,” says my painting instructor Jim Flahaven, one of the most important early things to learn is value — how to control your lights and your darks. There is a range of values from white to light grays, bumping up to dark grays to black. Beginners tend to group everything in the middle range. If you’re going to get a full, dramatic effect you want to have a range from very dark to very light and everything in between.”

Value is important because it makes objects in a two-dimensional painting appear three-dimensional and also creates an illusion of depth. “The only way you’re going to convince the world that you’re creating volume, that is, the illusion of a three-dimensional form,” says Jim, “is by having a good use of value in your works. It’s one of those things the beginner has to work on, right from the start.”

Black and white wedding picture

It can be hard to see values with your eyes wide open. That’s why artists squint. It can also be helpful to take a picture of your subject and convert it to black and white. “Color is such a dynamic element of art that it can confuse our sense of values,” Jim says. “You might have two colors that are exactly the same value, but the more dynamic color might read as either lighter or darker than the duller colors.”

Value scale

One other trick is to use a value chart to double check a specific area or color.

So … I may have a better understanding of values, but seeing them and then getting them right in a painting is another story!

Even if you convert a color picture to black and white, trust me — nothing is EVER only black and white. It’s always 50 or more shades of gray! In real life, the human eye is capable of seeing more than 500 shades. Imagine!

Value scales

In my 2D design class, we had to make our own value scales. It was a stretch to lay down only seven different shades, but it helped me appreciate the subtle shifts in value.

Sketch of bells

This semester, one of our first homework assignments was to paint three objects using only black, white and one color. I chose three old cow bells. It took a lot of squinting to see their values. I mixed red and yellow to make a warm orange and laid down strips of darkened and lightened color.

After some late nights of painting (it’s the life of a college student, even at my age), here’s what I created.

Painting of three bells

Jim set up a busy and colorful still life in class, which he had us paint in black and white — with a palette knife. Once again, it was all about values. I enjoyed using the palette knife. Cheers, Raggedy Ann!

Raggedy Ann painting

Our next setup was as subtle as Raggedy Ann was dramatic.

Green fabric

We had to paint a piece of fabric and show the folds and how they move in and out of light. I remember my former drawing teacher Lucy Ellen Smith telling me how much she loves painting drapery. There is something satisfying about it, but it’s so, so hard! I sent Lucy a message and asked for some advice.

She wrote back, “To pull off rendering drapery, you need a command of just about every value there is — subtle and intense. To get it to roll and undulate, you have to go from highlights to many shades of gray. You not only have to SEE those gradations, you have to have a command of your medium to put them down. You also have to know where to put the dark darks for the tucks and crevices or you never get the sculpted volume look of fabric.”

Lucy considers John Singer Sargent the 20th century master of drapery painting.

John Singer Sargent painting

Source: Screenshot, “Mrs. Joseph Chamberlain”

I’m stunned when I look at paintings like this. I could get discouraged and tell myself why bother even trying? You’ll never be able to paint that well. But, you know what? It doesn’t matter. Not only have I learned the value of values, I also know that to get better at anything, you have to keep doing it — practice, practice, practice! Whether you’re 20 or 40 or 60 or 80!

Are you still trying to get better at something you love doing?

 

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.