Understanding Color Value in Art: How to See Values in Color

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what is color value

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Color is undeniably a crucial component for artists and painters. However, when it comes to working with color, there exists one aspect that consistently presents a notable challenge: understanding color value.

Artists frequently struggle to create compelling and captivating paintings when they lack a solid understanding of how to see and use values in color together. Without this understanding, one can often end up with a flat and uninteresting painting that lacks depth, dimension, and a realistic sense of light.

Therefore, in this article, we will delve into several color value chart examples that offer valuable insights into better comprehending values in color on a deeper level. So, let’s get started by looking even closer at what color values are!

Exploring the Essence of What Color Values Are

Color value is the relative brightness of a hue in comparison to other colors. Various terms are used to describe the scale of different values in color, such as light, medium, and dark, or high-key, mid-key, and low-key.

Value is crucial, in its ability to create a believable sense of light, form, volume, contrast, and an overall greater interest in your painting. Building strong values is fairly straight forward in black and white. However, once you add color into the mix then it becomes much more difficult!

color value example of a rose in monochrome and color
Take for example this image of a red rose. The red flower appears much lighter in value when in color then it actually is in real life. It is the saturation level of the red that makes it appear lighter than it really is. Therefore, training yourself to see values clearly while working with color is very important in order to create clear tonal values and a sense of light in your painting.

Our eyes are often easily tricked by color. Some colors look lighter when they really are darker in value. Other colors may look darker in value than they really are. The way to be able to create strong values in your painting is to learn how to see strong values and color at the same time. Color value charts are a great tool that can help you achieve this goal.

Color Value Chart Examples

A color value chart is a presentation of colors arranged in order of their values, from lightest to darkest. While at the same time comparing them to different colors.

What is color value? Start by taking a look at the colors you regularly use on your palette. Figure out which are the lightest and darkest in value.

In the chart below we can see how each color on the palette above has a specific value. The values of each color are shown clearly in monochrome to the left of the colors. White is clearly the lightest value while burnt umber is the darkest.

Color value chart with examples of colors and their values next to one another
To the right are the colors that are used on a palette and to the left is the value of the color in monochrome.

There are various types of color value charts available, including grayscale value charts, color wheel value charts, and hue saturation value charts. Each of these charts is helpful in its unique way, depending on the artist’s painting style and preference.

Colors with the same values

Not every color has a different value. Many colors share the same value grouping. For example, in the chart below you can see how both ultramarine blue and pthalo green are in the same dark value grouping. Notice all of the other colors that are in the same column together. It can sometimes seem surprising!

Value scale chart that simplifies values in color.
So many colors have the same value, even though it might not seem apparent right away. This is why it is very important to train your eye to be able to see value when looking at color. Color charts help you to understand how saturation and brightness levels of a color can trick your eye to think a color is a different value.

Simplifying Values

The color chart above has quite a few values. Because it is good to simplify the values in your painting it is helpful to also make a color chart with just 5 values. This requires you to place values that are similar in value in the same value grouping.

Creating your own color value chart to help you understand values in color better
This simplified color value chart allows you to see what colors are grouped together. Of course, in a painting you will need to engage with a wide range of colors. However, something like this helps you to establish a baseline to be able to see color and value together.

How to make your own value color chart

It is very helpful to make value charts like the ones above for yourself. The process of figuring out what values colors are is a great learning experience. Use the colors on your palette or mix up some colors and figure out where they belong on the value chart scale.

There are quite a few different ways to create a value color chart. I decided to create mine by using triangle shapes as this allows me to label each color more easily. First, I created clear monochrome values using ivory black and white.

how to create your own value chart
Before making the triangles in color I first created the monochrome values that would allow me to group the color values together in the chart. I use heavy watercolor paper that doesn’t buckle when painted on.

For the triangle shapes I cut out triangle pattern piece that I used for every triangle shape for the color value chart.

creating a scale chart of different hues
You can use any shape for the colors on your color value chart. I chose triangles as this allows me to label each color more easily. To start, I cut out a triangle shape and used that as a pattern for every color so that it would be uniform. For my value color chart I used oil paints, however you can use any medium you would like – acrylic, watercolor, pastels etc.

Understanding what is color value

I then organized my triangle color shapes on heavy white watercolor paper according to its value underneath the monochrome value triangles. You can label the colors by writing the color name to the left of each color.

A color value chart helps you to gain a clearer understanding of how value and color work together.
Once you put together a value color chart you can understand more about color and value. Doing it with your own hands helps you to be able to group colors into value groupings much more easily.

Create a color value chart using any medium: watercolor, acrylic paints, soft pastels, or others!

Color Gradations Within Colors

I also recommend to create a color chart that shows a gradual lightening of each color. You can make color gradation charts with as few or as many colors as you want. Cut out strips of heavy watercolor paper each with evenly marked boxes.

You can measure out and cut up a number of strips to make your color gradation charts. Doing this helps you to experience and see how the value levels change for different colors. You can use any medium you would like for this exercise.

Start by painting the pure color at the bottom and gradually add more white to each box as you move up.

These painted strips feature beautiful gradations of color. Acrylic paints were used on paper to create these vibrant and diverse color charts.

Not all colors are equal in value

In the chart below you can see how no other hue is lighter in value than the lightest yellow. While no other hue is darker than ultramarine blue. Therefore The blue belongs at bottom of the value scale while the yellow is at the top.

diagram of a value scale in color
Value scale charts help you understand values on a deeper level by showing gradations from darker to lighter. As they allow you to see the level of value change for particular colors.

The placement of colors beside their monochrome equivalents is easily discernible. This visual arrangement allows for clear identification and comparison.

Using tools to see values clearly

When working with your own value charts as shown in this article, it can be difficult to have certainty of the value of certain colors. However, visual tools can help you develop your eye to see values in color more clearly.

Your phone and other tools

See the black and white filter applied over the color version of your color values chart below. This aids in visualizing the correct grouping of colors by their respective values and identifying any necessary adjustments.

example of monochrome values in scale, next to those in color
Your phone’s camera can also be an extremely useful tool to see values more clearly. Simply put a monochrome filter over your image. Doing so, will help you to see if your values in the correct value group. There are other visual tools that are also helpful to figure out values.

There are a number of other visual tools that can help you to see value more clearly. It is good to use all the tools at your disposal. They will help you to learn to see value more readily and easily when working in color. The more you train your eye the easier it will become to work with values in color.

Want to remember this? Save How to See Values in Color to your favorite Pinterest board!


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    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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    12 thoughts on “Understanding Color Value in Art: How to See Values in Color”

    1. Hi Elisabeth, I found your article so interesting and you made colour so exciting. Many thanks,

    2. This is just wonderful! I’ve read, re-read, made gey scales over and over again, but this just made a HUGE lightbulb go off for me! Thank you so much!
      Are these the kinds of things you have in your color mixing course?

      Thank you again!

      1. Hello Pat, I am so thrilled to hear that this article helped a lot with understanding value and color! That is so wonderful. My color mixing course goes in depth with how color works so you will be able to mix absolutely any color you need. Therefore it also goes in depth with learning how to mix different values for any color. However, my painting with color course is more in depth in regards to applying color and value to a painting – and seeing value in color as relates to creating a painting. If you have more questions don’t hesitate to reach out to me at [email protected]

    3. Being color recognition challenged, I am very interested in color value and the idea that color value can help the artist assign colors to the palette with a planned purpose. But I need clarification. Specifically, I would think color VALUE would be represented by the degree to which a color presents as dark vs. light in a monochromatic tone scale. Yet, have stated that color value may defined as the relative brightness of a hue. As I understand art terminology, brightness is pretty closely synonymous to intensity or saturation. This seems to be a distinction that goes right to the heart of the matter. We all know there are several highly saturated, bright yellows (e.g., Hansa) that are very light (near white) in terms of a monochromatic (dark vs. light) value scale while there are other yellows that are less saturated (e.g., titanate yellow) with similar very light in monochromatic value. Are you saying that these two yellows have similar monochromatic value but different color value? If so, how is this consistent with the schema you have used to associate colors with one of 5 value groups, a schema that seems to relate to darkness vs. lightness rather than saturation?

      1. Hello Jonathan, Apologies for the confusion. Color value has everything to do with how light or dark a color is in relation to a monochromatic tonal scale. I brought up brightness/ saturation levels of a color only to point out that when a color is brighter or more saturated it can sometimes look or appear lighter in value than it actually is – in this way color can trick our eyes. So its important to be aware of that. However, some colors could have different saturation levels but be similar in value. For example, cadmium red is darker in value than hansa yellow – if you mix white in with the red to get it to be the same tonal value as hansa yellow then it will not have the same saturation level as Hansa yellow does. This is because the Hansa yellow had no white added to diminish its brightness/ saturation level. While the cadmium red has a great deal of white added to it.

        I do not use titanate yellow and it appears that the color varies quite a bit across different brands, but the same principle would hold true from what I explained with cadmium red/ hansa yellow. In this article I do not deal with grouping colors together in regards to just their saturation levels – it is ONLY in regards to their tonal/ monochromatic levels. this is what is by far the most important thing to consider when painting.

        I hope that helps!

    4. Dear Elisabeth, thank you so much for this practical guide with regards to colors, still struggling a bit since there are so many fields to cover, however, your guide is helpful to get at least the values settled, thanks again and have a good evening

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