How to Establish Dynamic Color Values When Painting with Color

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value of color

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Being able to articulate the value of color in your painting is vital for bringing your work to life. However, mastering color and light in painting can be a difficult task.

Even for experienced artists, it can be a challenge to create the right balance of light and dark values—add color into the mix and it suddenly becomes much more difficult.

In this article, we’ll explore the importance of being able to establish strong values in color. As well as, how you can use color and value together to create powerful paintings that will captivate your audience.

Why value is greater than color

This painting by William Nicholson “Zinnias” has strong colors which contribute to the great appeal of the painting. However, the work would be dull and unsuccessful if it weren’t for its strong value structure.

Value is the most important fundamental element to learn as a painter and draftsman. I will even dare to say that it is MORE important than color.

If a painting has beautiful color but lacks a value structure, then the painting will not work because it doesn’t have a sense of light. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to pay attention to the value of color.

Example of a lack of value in a painting

Below is an example of a painting with a strong value structure (to the right) and a painting that lacks a sense of light (to the left).

The painting on the left lacks the strong values and clear sense of light that the painting on the right has. It is very important to pay attention to value above all else.

The painting to the left has great colors, but because of the disregard of the color values it falls flat and doesn’t work. On the other hand, the work on the right makes an immediate impression–because it has clear light and dark values.

No matter how beautiful your colors may be, if your work does not have clear values, then it will not work.

Painting in Monochrome (or Black & White)

This painting by Ingres ‘Odalisque in Grisaille‘ is an unfinished painting that established clear values for the beginning stage of a painting. In general it is much easier to figure out the values of a subject in monochrome (or black and white) before introducing color. This is because value is much more difficult to see with different colors.

It is very helpful to understand how to create a clear and solid light and dark structure first, before painting with color. Creating a clear sense of light in your painting is hard enough on its own and things become much more complicated once you add color into the mix.

So, it is important to develop a deep understanding of how color and value work together, so that you can effectively convey the light and shadows within your piece.

How to see values in color

In order to create strong values in color we need to understand how color works. The reason for this is because color can trick us! A color that might look bright, could in actuality be quite a bit darker in value than what it seems.

When we compare the color photo of this red hibiscus flower on the left with the black and white version on the right, the value of the red color looks much brighter and lighter than what it is in actuality as seen in the black and white photo.

For example, in the image above we see a red Hibiscus flower on the left. To the right is the same image but in black and white. The red color looks quite a bit darker than what we would have thought it would be when seen in color. The saturated quality of the red makes the color appear lighter in value – but is in actuality much darker.

How awareness of color helps to understand value

Making yourself aware of important qualities in colors will help you a great deal when it comes to creating clear values. For example, in the color wheel, yellow tends to be rather light in value, while red and blue tend to be rather dark. Each color has a value. Of course, the values of colors change as you lighten and darken them and make them more or less saturated.

value in color detail of a color wheel
In the color wheel you can see clearly what value each color is in the black and white version of the color version on the left. It is important to understand that every color has a value

Color values of bright, saturated colors

Very strong and saturated colors tend to be darker in value than they appear. For example, in order to get a bright saturated red it needs to have quite a bit of pigment – which requires for it to be darker in value.

value in color example detailing bright color values
Here you can see how each color becomes lighter in value as it becomes increasingly less saturated. A strong saturated color will be darker in value than what you expect it to be.

Notice in the image above how each of the colors become less saturated as they become lighter in value.

For example, the red color becomes LESS saturated and bright and turns into a lighter and less intense color as it becomes lighter in value.

Examples of clear color values in art

Artists working in various periods of history created value with color in different ways. However the through line that connects all painters is that they all focus on value over color to create a strong value structure in their work.

Matisse

For example, Matisse is considered part of the Fauvist movement. Which was a group of artists who focused on using strong colors.

In this self portrait by Henri Matisse we can see how he used strong shades of green color on the face of the portrait. Though the colors used are not very ‘natural’ they work really well because he used accurate values. We can clearly see how he first considered value above color.

In the painting above, a self portrait by the artist, we can see strong shades of green painted over the face. Although this isn’t a color we naturally see on a face, it works in the painting. This is because the value of the green color is the same value even if you used a more natural ‘skin color’.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio couldn’t be more different in how he creates value with color. His focus is on using more natural colors but he creates very strong and dynamic values.

Caravaggio and strong values in color
In this painting ‘Narcissus’ by Caravaggio we can see a color applied in a very wide range of values. Though very different from how other artists work, the underlying principle is exactly the same – the value of color is considered first and foremost.

In the painting above we can see how his dark values are very dark while his light values are very light in value. So, he creates a very wide range of values with color.

Degas

In this work by Degas below we see a much narrower range of values than the piece by Caravaggio. Degas creates value with color in a much softer and subtle way.

In this work by Degas, Madame René de Gas, we see the artist create value with color in a much more subtle way. We do not see extreme lights or darks. Again, what connects all artists is that the focus is on the value structure of a painting. Color must be seen through the lens of value.

Despite the enormous differences that exist between artists and how they create value with color, they all share the same truth and reality regarding the value and color. That is, color needs to be seen through the lens of light and shadow. We always must first consider what value a color is before thinking of what kind of color it is.

How to apply values in color to your own painting

The best way to apply what you learned in this article is to practice. Work on establishing strong and clear values above all else. Even if you are advanced and have been painting for years – this is always relevant to your development as an artist. Leonardo Da Vinci continued to study light and create studies throughout his career.

Here is a drapery study by Leonardo Da Vinci. The artist was obsessed with light and learning how light works. Therefore he created many studies of how light works and behaves in different types of situations. It would be hugely beneficial to your own learning and development to also undertake light and value studies continuously.

Expose yourself to different kinds of lighting situations so that you feel comfortable interpreting a variety of light effects.

Use Value Studies

Creating value studies will never get old as they are an essential part of creating good work. It is necessary to incorporate it into your practice as a painter. You can use charcoal or a graphite pencil to create small quick value studies of your subject. If you prefer to use paint you can also create small value studies with black and white paint.

Here is an example of a very small charcoal value study drawing. Small (3 x 3 in) drawings are great for achieving a firm understanding of the large basic values that exist in your subject matter.

The purpose of a value study is for you to understand the basic large light and dark values in your work. This helps you to demystify what values the colors in your painting are. So you can create a strong value structure in your work.

Focus on Color Spots & Shapes of Value

In this painting “The death of Leonardo da Vinci in the arms of François I” by François-Guillaume Ménageot we can see the basic value structure of the painting on the left with the light, medium and dark areas divided out. It is important to have a clear understanding of the large basic value groupings in your painting before you move onto color. This is because value will just get more complicated once you introduce color.

Once you have a clear idea of the values in your painting work on breaking your subject matter down into color spots. Before you apply each color in your painting – ask yourself what value it is first.

painting that shows value in color via color spots
Here we can see how the painting is divided into spots of color and value. Each area of color has a specific shape and a distinct value. Work on doing this in your own work.

This way you can break the process down into manageable steps. Try to first see and paint large simplified spots of color. Once you build confidence and can create strong values with large spots of color, then move onto the smaller spots of color that exist within the larger spots of color.

Continue to paint and explore the world of color and value. It is a never ending learning process. Which is what makes painting difficult, but at the same time incredibly exciting as there is always something new to discover.

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    12 thoughts on “How to Establish Dynamic Color Values When Painting with Color”

    1. Bernadette Mitchell

      There are many artists articles on Pinterest but I always find yours the most helpful. You have such a great way of making everything so clear and understandable.

    2. Hi Elisabeth.
      Thank you so much for this excellent post. I have been struggling with my painting for a while with all the difficulties; and only painting from photos. I had no idea what value in painting was all about. I am practicing more now before painting, all thanks to your help with all the emails I can now save to go back on.
      The older painter? 😎

        1. Hi Elisabeth.
          I have been trying to save your latest posts to Pinterest; but won’t let me. Perhaps I now have too many. Could you please advise.

          kind regards and many thanks.

          Mike D

          1. Hi Mike, I am sorry that it is being a little bit difficult. It might help to refresh the page (or closing and opening it) – sometimes that solves the issue! Otherwise, there shouldn’t be a problem as don’t think there is a limit on how many pins you can have.

            I hope that helps!

    3. Collecting your UTube Articles in one place, I spotted this today.

      Dailey coming to my email:I find this article as a member of this group.

      Excellent as I consider color for my 3rd layer of my Duke Garden painting.

    4. Some time ago I took a colored pencil class. The instructor said my picture lacked enough “Value”. I didn’t understand what she meant. I still struggle with what Value is. Your article has really helped me.
      Thank you for sharing.

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