The Importance of Value in Art: Mastering Light and Shadow

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definition of value in art

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The importance of value in art is unmistakable. Light and shadow are not just absolutely central to art but also important in being able to see at all. Without light, the world would be cast in darkness and we wouldn’t be able to really see the world that surrounds us. And without darkness, we would just see intense light and nothing else.

As artists, it is our jobs to study light and shadow and learn how to translate it onto canvas! There is nothing in art that is more important than this.

With light and dark values you can transform the most mundane subject into a poetic moment. It is only with values that you can create any kind of light in your art. This article will delve into why light and dark values are so important and how they help make the ordinary, extraordinary!

The Definition of Value in Art

Thomas eakins the biglin brothers turning the Stake. Painting with clear definition of value in art.
Painting by Thomas Eakins, The Biglin Brothers Turning the Stake. Here we see extraordinary clear sense of light in the painting. All because the light and dark values are clear and accurate in the painting.

The real definition of value in art is how dark or light a color or hue is. And it is the most important of the seven elements of art. The concept of value is paramount in creating a realistic sense of light in a painting.

This principle is essential for artists to master, as it allows them to depict the effects of light and shadow accurately, thereby bringing depth and dimension to their work.

The Challenge of Mastering Light and Shadow

However, achieving a clear sense of light can be challenging. It requires artists to hone their ability to simplify and translate what they observe in the real world, into distinct light and dark values on their canvas. This is a skill that is not easily acquired. To get there one must learn to see as an artist and be able to interpret value in colors. And understand how to simplify the seemingly infinite number of values our eyes see into clear value shapes. This process can be complex, as it involves a delicate balance of observation, interpretation, and technical execution.

Landscape study by George Inness. This painting shows clear values throughout the painting. Notice the light and dark shapes in the sky and land.

With dedication and practice, you can develop a keen eye for values, enabling them to capture the subtle nuances of light. While at the same time maintaining clear big picture values. Learning to effectively use light and dark values not only enhances the impact of a painting but also allows artists to convey their unique vision of the world. Over time, mastering the use of value to create a sense of light becomes an invaluable tool in an artist’s repertoire, enabling them to elevate their art to new heights.

Creating a Sense of Space in Your Art

Light and shadow play a pivotal role in creating a sense of space and depth within a painting. By skillfully manipulating light and dark values, an artist can orchestrate a convincing illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface. This visual trickery relies on the fact that light naturally highlights objects, making them appear closer. While shadows tend to push elements into the background, adding depth to the scene.

Value helps to create space in this painting by Thomas Cole. It has a clear definition of value in art
The definition of value in art is the degree of lightness or darkness in a color. The value of a hue or color plays a big role in the sense of space that develops in a painting. Creating space in art relies entirely on value. Take for example the landscape painting above by Thomas Cole. You can see how the mountainous areas off in the distance are lighter in value. While the area closer up is much darker.

The direction and intensity of light within a painting not only define the form and texture of objects but also establish the atmosphere and mood of the scene. For instance, a strong light source can create sharp, defined shadows that accentuate the solidity and positioning of objects, effectively mapping out the space in which they exist. Conversely, a softer light source might produce gentle gradients of light and dark. This suggests a more diffuse sense of space and distance.

Yalta (Spring) By Can Ciaglinski. Your eye first looks at the strong contrast with the dark grey foreground against the lighter color. Then your eye slowly migrates to the back of the painting. This is a good example of how value can help to create movement and direct your eye in a composition.

Furthermore, the contrast between light and shadow can guide the viewer’s eye through the painting. Creating a narrative or focal path that highlights the important elements of the composition. This manipulation of viewer perception can be a powerful tool. As it allows you to direct the viewers attention and create spatial clarity. Through the nuanced use of light and shadow, you can transform a flat canvas into a dynamic and living space.

The Power to See Value IN COLOR Clearly

The complexity of the physical world can often be distilled into simple shapes of light and dark. When we begin to see the world through this lens, a transformation occurs, in which value becomes a language. With this familiarity with value, color becomes a much easier stepping stone than before.

The definition of value in art is stable and never changes. However the way that different artists use value varies widely. As an artist it is very important to learn and fully understand value in order to interpret it. Painting by Thomas Eakins

When begin to see value in color accurately, our eyes don’t become distracted by all the colors, but rather first see their values and secondly their colors. The most important quality of any color is what value it is, so when we get this right – then the rest will eventually come together. In order to work with color effectively, artists must learn to see value well, almost instinctively. This isn’t anything new, but has been the case for centuries throughout the history of art making.

Painting by Rubens Santoro, San Pietro di Castello. Here we see very clear light and dark values in the spots of color. he uses to create this work. This clarity of values in color, creates a clear sense of light.

When we look at different masterpieces, we notice one thing in common, they all contain light and shadow. They might use value in different ways, but they all have a strong foundation in the fundamentals of how value works and functions. It is through their strong base in value that they are able to use color is such free and fluid manners.

Here is a wonderful tonal study by Vuillard. We can see how he created clear spots of light and dark values while also using more muted earth-tone colors. It can be helpful to use such colors instead of bright saturated colors. This way you can concentrate more on getting the values accurate instead of the color.

The Universal Language of Painting

The presence of light and shadow is not merely a frequent element found across great paintings. It is the universal language through which all painters express the essence of the visible world. This duality of lightness and darkness, of highlight and shadow, serves as the foundation upon which all great works of art are built. Each famous painting, regardless of the era or style, showcases an intimate understanding of value—how to harness the full spectrum of light and dark to mold form, depth, and perception on canvas.

Examples of Value in Art Through History

The “Gattamelata”. Man in armour with a squire by Giorgione. This painting is an example of how one can create dramatic light effects by using chiaroscuro type of values. Throughout art history, different artists use value in different ways.

From the chiaroscuro techniques of Renaissance masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio, who used stark contrasts to create dramatic tensions and volumetric forms, to the subtle gradations of light in Impressionist paintings by Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, which capture the fleeting effects of sunlight and shadow—the principle remains the same. All these artists, though their methods and styles diverged widely, relied on a profound grasp of value. They understood that to paint is to replicate how light interacts with the world, and how shadows define the spaces we perceive.

Winter Landscape with Evening Sky by Claude Monet. Note how different the values in this piece are compared to the previous painting by Giorgione. Value is incredibly important and central to both pieces. Though it is used in entirely different ways. Learning the fundamentals of value doesn’t mean you need to follow a formula. Far from it – understanding value enables you to interpret what you paint into something entirely new.

The diversity in the application of value underscores the depth of its fundamental importance in painting. Whether through bold contrasts that carve shapes out of the darkness or through delicate shifts that suggest the soft caress of light. A mastery of light and shadow enables artists to convey not just visual but emotional truths. Thus, at the heart of every great painting lies a sophisticated command of value, making light and shadow the very essence of painting.

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    8 thoughts on “The Importance of Value in Art: Mastering Light and Shadow”

    1. I kind of understand value. HA. It seems to me that watercolors seem to use the darkest black they can find for their darks. Also have you seen the new new paper in stretch frames. Like Canvas. One more thing , Dang you do good work. Thanks Chuck

    2. Dana P. Varisco

      This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me. One of my biggest struggles is controlling values. I needed this reminder on what to foucs on.

      The last sentence in your article says it all. “Thus, at the heart of every great painting lies a sophisticated command of value, making light and shadow the very essence of painting”.

      ……. the very essence of painting….

      Thank you!

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