What Is Value in Art? A Definition and How To Use It Effectively

value definition in art

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Value is one of seven art elements and is the main reason you can create contrast and dimensionality in art. It isn’t the color of a pigment, but rather its shade.

In fact, completely different colors like yellow and purple can share the exact same value.

But how can this be?

In this post, we’re going to break down what value is, its relationship with color, and how you can better understand value with just a few simple exercises.

The Value Scale

When learning about value in art, the value scale is the best place to start. It’s simply a way to organize the values you plan to use in your composition, from lightest to darkest. The scale was invented by Denman Ross, a Professor of Art at Harvard University, in 1907 to map out light and dark colors in visual arts.

(Ross dedicated an entire book to color, temperature, and value in art, which you can buy here if you’re interested.)

You could create an infinite number of values, but when a painting or drawing has too many, it can appear chaotic and messy. Creating your own scale of 9 values can be extremely useful to reference as you color mix.

The darkest values are considered low key, the lightest are high key, and the middle-of-the-road values are considered mid-range.

the value scale
(Image Source)

Ross’s scale is in black and white, which purposely removes hue and saturation, so your only focus is on light vs dark. You can also create a value scale by incorporating color, but that’s something we’ll talk about in a minute.

Low Key, Mid Range, And High Key

Whether you create with oil or acrylic paint, digital mediums, or charcoal, having a solid knowledge base of this art element can help you create more realistic artwork.

Great artists of the past understood the importance of using value to create focal points and the illusion of three-dimensionality long before the invention of Ross’s handy scale.

To create these different values, you have to create shades and tints. Dark values are made by adding black to a hue, which creates a shade of that color. On the contrary, the lightest values are made by mixing white with a hue, and these are called tints.

Low Key

Creating artwork with a low-key scheme means your piece is mostly made up of darker shades.

You can see this in many of Rembrandt’s portraits, which famously use dark, rich colors to frame a brightly lit focal point.

low key
Apostle Peter Kneeling by Rembrandt

Now, imagine if the background was composed of light values instead. The man’s face and the keys laying beside him wouldn’t stand out nearly as much, and the piece would lack the strong contrast that makes it so eye-catching.

Mid Range

Mid-range values are exactly as they sound – right in the center of the value scale. Artwork composed with mid-range values has very little contrast, like this piece: The Hermit by John Singer Sargent.

What catches your eye right away? Mine was drawn to the darkest value in the shady forest. But did you even see the man in the corner? How about the two deer just to his left?

All of the living things and their immediate surroundings are made with mid-range values, creating a sneaky camouflage. The hues (or colors) are all very different if you look closely, but they’re similar in terms of lightness.

mid range
The Hermit by John Singer Sargent.

If Sargent had used darker tonal values to shade his living subjects, they wouldn’t be hidden nearly as well. But that’s the genius of this piece. Are you starting to see the power of value in art?

High Key

High-key artwork focuses on using light values or hues with more tint. Imagine taking scissors and chopping off your darkest options on the value scale, then painting or drawing with what’s left.

A great example of high key value in art is Path In The Wheat Fields at Pourville by Claude Monet. There’s certainly enough contrast to give this piece depth, but if you look closely, you’ll notice Monet used a limited range that lacked the darkest darks.

Claude Monet still used a variety of values throughout this piece – they’re simply shifted toward the lightest end of the spectrum.

high key
Path In The Wheat Fields at Pourville by Claude Monet

How Does Value Relate To Color?

Value in art is often confused with color. They are not the same, but the two are certainly related. Color is broken down into three components, one of which is value:

The Three Components Of Color

  1. Hue – Any color on the color wheel is called a hue.
  2. Value – The art element that determines the lightness or darkness of a hue. It can be changed by adding white to make a tint, or black to make a shade.
  3. Saturation – The intensity of a hue, which can be altered by adding gray. The result is called a tone.

You can mix various tones, tints, and shades of a color to alter your artwork’s intensity, lightness, or darkness.

The Munsell Color System

To better understand how these three are related, check out this model created by Robert H. Munsell. It’s quite a genius chart that shows the relationship between hue, saturation, and value in art (AKA lightness in the chart).

the munsell color system
The Munsell Color System

Munsell’s chart shows that every single hue can share the same value by adding black or white – even when you compare yellow to purple, or red to green. When you compare values, color is irrelevant, only the shade or tint matters. Here’s another way to look at it.

how does value relate to color

On the left, you’ll see a normal color wheel. On the right is the color wheel with a saturation of zero. All the hues and their intensity are stripped away, but the value of each hue is leftover.

Do you notice how hues that are very different appear to be exactly the same value in grayscale? Look at the blue and orange hues located at the far left and right on the wheel in color, then in grayscale.

What would your artwork look like if you used very different hues, but all of them had similar values?

Value Contrast And How It Changes Your Painting’s Appearance

All of the art elements work in tandem, but the value in art is specifically what creates the high contrast that gives the illusion of depth in art.

Have you ever created an oil painting or a drawing that was full of bright colors, but no matter what you did, it still looked flat? If you edited that painting or drawing to strip away all the color and saturation, you might find the values very similar.

Without some value contrast, it’s nearly impossible to create the illusion of depth. If you keep bumping into this issue, check out this free 15 minute lesson that explains value in painting, and reveals common mistakes to avoid.

Let’s look at some examples of value in art. Pay close attention to the dark areas and how they contrast with the light.

High Contrast Value

You don’t need to use the lightest and the darkest value possible to create depth, but some artists like to.

Chuck Close famously used strong, dark shades and bright, light values to make this self-portrait pop right off the canvas. And no, it’s not a photograph. (I couldn’t believe it either).

The longer you look at this stunning acrylic painting, the more alive it feels. You half expect to smell the cigarette smoke rolling right off the canvas.

high contrast value
Big Self Portrait by Chuck Close

The element that makes Close’s piece so successful is not only his attention to detail and proportion, but the hard contrast between light and dark.

Limited Range Values

If creating a 3D look isn’t your goal, simplifying your value scale will create artwork that appears much more flat.

Many artists prefer using various hues paired with a limited value scale. Henri Mattise is a prime example – the artist who was at the forefront of the fauvism movement. A Matisse painting is unmistakable, with colors that violently clash, but look quite flat due to the limited range of values.

First, look at his painting of Madame Matisse in grayscale. Notice how similar the values are in the face, neck, collar of the shirt, and even the background.

limited range values

Now, look at the original. Notice how different the colors are. Compared to Chuck Close’s self portrait, it’s clear that accurate values play a huge role in the illusion of dimension.

values in art

Composition And Value In Art

Before you dive headfirst into a painting or drawing, you may want to consider how your composition will affect the values in your piece.

Before committing to a specific layout, sketching out a few different compositions is a good idea. Consider where the light source will be, and how your shadows will fall – essentially making the blueprint.

composition and value in art
(Image Source)

Remember Rembrandt’s portrait from earlier? The darkest values surrounded the light value hues, making them stand out immensely. As you sketch out your composition, choose your focal point and play around with the layout.

Once you’re happy with the composition, it’s time for a value study.

Understand Value With Value Studies

To better understand value in art, creating a value study is not a bad idea. To do this, you create a rough sketch in grayscale with a max of 9 different values. (Less is more in this process).

It doesn’t have to be detailed – the purpose is to map out large masses of accurate values before incorporating color.

Regardless of the medium you use, there are a few basic steps to plan out your value in artworks.

How To Do A Value Study

1. Create Your Value Scale

No matter the medium, you should always begin by creating a scale of values you’ll use in your piece.

Start by drawing a long rectangle large enough for all your values. You can freehand it or use a ruler if you’re extra particular like me. Then, lightly with a pencil, separate your long rectangle into 9 even boxes.

The key is to avoid creating dark borders that keep the colors from touching. If you make little frames around each square, it’s much more difficult to see the differences in your shades and tints.

Begin with your lightest color (typically white) and fill in the first square. Now, go to the opposite end and fill in the last square with black. Then, mix your mid-range value by blending black and white, and fill that square in.

From here, you’ll have to fill in the remaining squares with intermediate colors. Carefully mix tints by adding more white to your mid-range color. Then make your shades by adding more black to the mid-range color.

The finished product should look something like this.

create your value scale

2. Grab Your Sketchbook

Pick a subject you’d like to paint in this study, grab your sketchbook and start blocking out the darker values, mid range values, and light ones.

Try not to get too deep in the weeds here, especially if you’re painting weeds…

Try to leave the tiny details for the final piece. This is just intended to be a rough sketch.

light and value in art

If you’re satisfied with your study, then feel free to start the real deal – painting or drawing in color. But if you think your tints and shades could use some work, go back to step one and create a new scale with different values to repeat the same process.

I personally do this several times just to be sure the shadows and light contrast each other the way I envision. Plus, the more studies you do, the better your understanding of value in art will be. It really can’t hurt to practice the art elements.

If you’re brand new to this exercise, check out these beginner guides for drawing, acrylic painting, and oil painting value studies to watch them laid out step by step.

value art example
Value study by Linda Mann

Pro Tip:
When I started doing value studies, it was easy to see the difference in shades and tints when only white and black were involved. But as soon as I tried to recreate my study in color, I found it very difficult to distinguish them from one another.

Something that I found helpful was mixing my colors on the palette, then snapping a picture of them and adding a grayscale filter.

That way, I could use the filter to create emphasis on which colors needed to be made lighter or darker to match my original value study.

The Value Of Value In Art

By this point, I bet you see just how valuable value in art is.

Without the ability to mix tints and shades, the artwork would lack the dimensionality that makes it jump out of the canvas. It certainly takes practice to master value in drawing and painting, but once you understand the intricate relationship between color and value, your artwork will certainly come to life.

If you’re ready to master value in art, among other fundamentals, check out some of our favorite online art classes.

Happy painting!

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