Lesson 1 - Value, Your Biggest Asset

What is value?

Value is essentially how light or dark a color is. In other words, it is the brightness of a color. The lighter the color, the higher the value — and vice versa. Value is what gives a painting the volume .

Knowing how to correctly use value can be the difference between dull or uninteresting paintings and beautiful eye-catching works of art. It's the dark color that tells the story in a painting. It took me some time to learn the importance of value, but once I did, it was a game changer. Value is what makes your subjects discernible and can describe a scene where colors can't. Value can help emphasize certain parts of your painting and direct the viewers eye right where you want it to go.

Did you know you have 20 times more the ability to read value vs color? Not to nerd out on you, but the human eye is made of receptors. These receptors are the sensitive elements that absorb light and start the process of sending visual signals to the brain. There are 6 million receptors that help us see color — 120 million receptors help us to see value.

That’s the technical reason why value is more important than color. However, as artists, we need more relatable arguments as to why we should prioritize value so read on.

How do we see Value?

As novices to the craft, it can be challenging to determine how value is applied to paintings. However, there are ways — to help us see the value in our subjects so that we can properly apply them to our paintings.

Here are some of those ways:

1. Squinting and compare

Looking at paintings in their entirety can be overwhelming to some, but when you observe your subject while squinting, most of the details will be blurred out and the values, particularly the dark values will become prominent. It’s those dark values you want to pay attention to and use.

2. Using a value finder

Value finders are essentially tools that scale a color from dark to light. Just hold them beside your subject and you'll be able to spot the value in a matter of seconds. They could be your new best friend since they are very easy to use.

3. Turning a photo black and white

It can be discouraging to find the value in a colored image or subject. Black and white photos of your subject make it easier to spot value because it removes the complexity of color. Not only that, they can give the observers an idea as to whether or not the value pattern is good.

Editing a photo to be black and white can be done with just one finger. All you need is your smartphone. Open up your album, select a photo, tap on edit, look for the saturation setting then set it to its lowest setting, and there you have it. Easy right?

4. Looking through a hole-punched surface

Most people won't even think of doing this! As I've mentioned before, looking at your subject in its entirety can be overwhelming. A hole-punched surface can help with that. Using this method allows viewers to identify specific areas without any neighboring distractions. When we look through hole punches, only a portion of the value can be seen and the colors should be isolated.

How do we use value?

Now that we know the basics, we can now use value to our advantage. We can do this by copying what Rembrandt does in his paintings.

The storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt

If we look closely, Rembrandt used value to emphasize that the source of light is coming from the left side of the painting. Rembrandt cleverly uses value pattern with high contrast and subtle shifts in value to lead the viewer through the story. With the help of value pattern, the painting tells a moving story even if the image is still.

If we think about it in a more technical sense, value can be divided into three: dark, medium, and light. Furthermore, if we focus on what these three subdivisions are doing, rather than what the object is representing, we can create more depth and emotion in our paintings.

Another thing we can see in Rembrandt’s work is that value has a greater effect when formed in groups or when massed together. Generally, you would want a large part of your painting to have one dominant value (either dark, medium or light) — the other parts should individually have medium and small amounts.

When value patterns are used properly, it should give more emphasis on your object, and consequently, your painting could have an eye-leading effect.

The Value Scale Exercise

Improving your skills with value can be a challenge, but with this exercise, you can get to know what values are available to you as an artist without the distractions of color.