How to See in Value

One of the most important concepts to know and understand as a visual artist is that pictures, scenes and still images are arrangements of value; light, dark and gray shapes. It’s these light, dark and gray shapes that the human mind assembles as a cohesive picture.

Being able to see the world as shapes of value, especially colored shapes and objects, is a master skill to cultivate as a visual artist. It’s important to the artist because in order to compose and arrange shapes in our pictures, we must first see and understand their inherent grayscale value.

The most basic and abstract pattern of dark and light shapes (A) is the first ‘read’ the mind makes. This happens on a visceral, almost subconscious level. As more information is processed, like details and color, the mind can then assemble a more refined and sophisticated image (D). 

How do we train our eyes to see the world in value? There are some very simple strategies we can use when we observe the world around us. The first step is to learn how to deal with color information.

To see these strategies in action, watch the video below or continue reading for the in-depth breakdown.


Step 1: Ignore color information

One way to see color as value is to simply ignore the color. Learning to ignore, or lose color information takes some practice. The most common technique to do this is to squint. Squinting allows less color into your eyes but retains the value information.

Here is a Photoshop simulation of what I see when I squint at a scene:

Squinting is the first and most common technique used by artists to better observe the values of an image or scene.

With practice your eye will become trained to see in this way and ignore color information while first seeking the value information. Also, practice and experience will help you to distinguish the inherent value of certain colors.

Certain colors such as saturated reds, greens and blues will tend to be much darker then they appear. Yellows will tend to be the brightest of colors. This can be experienced through using traditional paints like oil and acrylic.

Painters will often arrange their palettes with yellows close to the white, while deep blues and greens will be on the dark end of the value spectrum. Because deep blues and greens are so dark, painters will often use them  as substitutes for black.

Color wheel and palette by James Gurney. In a typical color wheel, yellow is often placed at the top because of it’s inherent light value (A).  The palette is arranged from light  to dark (B). Notice the yellows are next to white on the light side of the color arrangement. On the dark side, a rich, saturated green and a purple are used as substitutes for black .

Along with observing nature, painting, mixing and becoming familiar with traditional medium is good practice to help to train your eye to see the inherent value of various colors.


Step 2: Look for Edges and Borders

Once you lose or ignore the color information, and you’re staring at a blurry blob of shapes, the next skill to learn is to observe borders and/or edges of those shape blobs.

If there is a clear, visible border between shapes, then you know it’s a clear difference in value.

The clear border between sky and water (A),  foam and water (B), and where rock meets foam (C), clearly separates these shapes. The soft edge between the top plane of the rock and the side plane in shadow (D); and their proximity in value, blends the two planes together into one shape.

When there isn’t a clear border between shapes, then that means they are closer in value.  Typically you want to group values that are close together, and you want to do this as much as possible.

The goal isn’t really to see as many values as possible. The goal is to simplify what you see into as few values as possible. Simplifying to two, three (even four) values max is ideal.

In fact, the fewer values, and the simpler the value statement, the more powerful the impact an image will have on the viewer’s mind. The mind seeks and loves contrast. Since there is no greater contrast then the 2 value idea of dark and light, an artist should seek to give the viewer’s mind the contrast and simplicity it craves.

However, even if values may seem close together, an artist can still make a decision to separate a value shape.

This is where experience and sensibility come into play. Making the decision to group or separate values and knowing what will be best for the image is a powerful skill to cultivate as an artist and composer.

In the painting on the right, I make a conscious decision to increase the contrast and thus separate the forms of the lighthouse from the water (A). I also brighten the white wall (B) to further separate it from the rock and grass. Even though the top plane of the rock is in light (C), I chose to keep the value dark and close to the value of the cliff wall in shadow. The decision to play down or mute the contrast here helps to increase the contrast and ‘pop’ of the more important objects like the lighthouse.

Carefully observing edges is also important. Often value shapes will have soft edges at their border, meaning they will smoothly transition from one value to another. This can also occur between two totally different objects that are in two totally different planes of three-dimensional space.

The foreground leaves (A) and their soft edge (B) blends into the middleground (C). To separate the foreground, I use a combination of a harder edge on the foreground leaves (D) and greater value contrast, which creates more depth in the picture.

Being able to distinct edges and transitions between value shapes will help you make good decisions about value.


Step 3: Look for the absolutes

The two absolutes, or extreme ends of the value scale, are pure black and pure white. They represent complete absence of light (ie. deep shadows, dark colored, matte objects in shadow) and pure, bright light bouncing off a light colored object.

This scene below has objects that are very close to pure black and white. Stark contrast like this makes observing values easier.

The value of the dark cliff wall in shadow is very close to pure black (A). The white seafoam in light is almost a pure white (B). Using the foam as a comparison, I can better gauge the brightness of the sky (C). Comparing the top plane of the rock (D) to the near black of the shadow shows that they are very close in value, even when the top plane is in light.

When there isn’t an obvious black or white in the scene, then it gets a little trickier.

If you squint at a muted, overcast scene like this, the values are very close together.

In the scene above, it’s a relatively overcast day. Values in outdoor, natural light settings will tend to be in a middle value range, especially on overcast days.

In this case, I like to compare the scene to a pure black or white object. The object can be elsewhere in the scene or field of vision, or, you can introduce one.

Hold up a black object like a pen or a bright white object like a piece of paper and then compare. You’ll quickly learn to distinguish the grays when compared to the absolutes.

How bright is the sky? When compared to pure white paper (B), it reveals itself as a light gray. How dark are the trees in the hills? When compared to a black pen cap (A), it reveals itself as a middle value gray.


Step 4: Understanding relative values

Finally, you want to be able to compare values and relate them to the other values in the scene, not as individual pieces. In other words, be aware of what is next to or surrounding a value or shape.

Often when there is strong value contrast between a shape and what surrounds it,  your mind will percieve the value to be much lighter or darker than it truly is.

Which center square is lighter, A or B? This classic optical illusion demonstrates the power of relative values. The answer is, they are both the same value. Because they are surrounded with contrasting values, the mind is tricked into mis-perceiving the true value of the center square.

For example, a light figure against a black backdrop or a pink rose against dark green leaves will make the objects seem much brighter then they truly are.

The figure and the flower above seem very bright, much brighter then their true value because they are surrounded by black. Careful observation reveals that the value of the figure in light (A), and the flower in light (B) is actually a mid-gray.

The reverse is also true, with dark objects surrounded by light.

Lightening the background behind a dark subject is a common strategy to create separation and depth. Careful observation reveals that the figure in light (A) and the rose (B), are actually not close to black at all, but are actually a mid-gray.

Again, being able to compare each individual value to a pure black or pure white will be be very helpful. So look for the absolutes or introduce them, then compare the value in question before making your value judgements.


Examples and Application

Let’s take a look at some scenarios and how I would make the value decisions. Each image is interpreted two ways. The first with only two values (2-value statement), and the second with three values (3-value statement).

Example 1: Portrait

To simplify the scene as only two values, I first group the entire background as one value, including the dark shadow casting on the wall (A). I then group the shadow of the head (B) with the bg value. Finally, all the lights are grouped into one value, including the darker half-tones of the fabric (C).

In the 3-value statement, a third, light value was added on the forehead (D). A third value like this allows for more flexibility when rendering and modeling form.

Example 2: Figure

When a backdrop is black or near black, being able to group the darks becomes more obvious. To make a 2-value statement, I group the entire bg with the black backdrop, including the dark shadow of his legs (A). Even though the feet get lost in the shadow, I make a conscious decision to group them with the lights (C). Finally, all the lights of his skin are grouped, including the bright highlights and the white hair (B).

To make a 3-value statement, I simply add a third value between dark and light to help model the form (B). Also notice that the edge of the third value is softened by gradation. This soft edge helps to create a smooth transition from dark to light.

Example 3: Still Life

This final example is a classic scenario of dark objects against a light background.  To make a 2-value statement, nearly all the dark foreground objects are grouped together into one shape (A). Then, the gradation in the bg is simplified into one value (B).

To make a 3-value statement, a darker mid-value is added to the background (C). The brightest value is reserved for the light fg objects (D). This creates an interesting play of shapes and implied depth.  The light value is also added to the bg as a gradation (E). The smooth gradation not only helps to separate the bg from the dark fg bottles, but creates the illusion of more values and greater complexity.


Summary & Conclusion

Being able to see in value is truly a foundational skill that will have tremendous impact on an Artist’s work. I personally gained tremendous confidence in my work once I understood this concept and could see the inherent value of any colored object or shape. By using some basic strategies, we can train our eyes to see in value.

First, we squint to help us lose color information and focus on the value. Squinting also helps us to ignore small details and subtleties, and to focus on the big shapes of value.

Next, we look for borders and edges between the value shapes. If there is a clear border or separation in value, then we know that we are looking at a distinct value shape. If two shapes seemingly blend or merge together, then we look to simplify and group these shapes together.

To better understand the variations of gray we see, we look to and compare with the absolutes of the value scale, pure black and pure white. If black or white is not present in the scene, we can also introduce a black or white object to help us make better judgements.

Finally, we become aware of and relate all the values in the scene as a whole, not as individual pieces and shapes.  We’re especially aware of the values next to or surrounding a value shape. If there is great contrast between two value shapes, we must first compare to the absolutes, or other values in the scene in order to make more accurate judgement of it’s true value.

A summary of the value observation steps.


In the next article we will discuss some of the exercises and practices that were helpful to me in learning to master value observation.

If you like this article, leave a comment below. What did you learn from this article? Where have you applied the information? Share your thoughts and experiences about good value observation.

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50 thoughts on “How to See in Value”

  1. Wow! Thank you. I am acrylic painter and want to add more realism to my impressionist paintings. I am going to study your article as part of my education. Also, do you have any more b&w photos that I can use to practice breaking down values into 3 or 4 parts+ black + white. I’d like to practice defining/outlining the value breaks and numbering them as you’ve done.
    Either way, thank you so much for sharing your talent!

  2. Thank you so much. Please share this article if it was helpful. As for reference, I have reference here and in my Newsletter subscriber page.

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