What Is Value In Art?
Value in art has various meanings, but for the purpose of this post we will be referring to value in relation to color theory.
Value in art is essentially how light or dark something is on a scale of white to black (with white being the highest value and black being the lowest value).
It is widely considered to be one of the most important variables to the success of a painting, even more so than your selection of color (hue).
Value in art should be simple to understand, however the inclusion of color can make it a challenging concept to grasp.
You could have two different colors which appear completely different, but have exactly the same value. There would be little contrast between these colors despite the different hues.
On the other hand, you could have many different values of the same hue. These are called tints and shades. You can produce tints of a color by adding white and shades by adding black.
The Value Scale
Below is a scale of values ranging from 1 to 9:
The number of values between white and black are actually infinite, however for simplicity artists prefer to reduce the range to a scale of 1 to 9 or 10.
All the colors in your painting can be placed at some point on this scale.
You do not need to utilize all values in this scale. Many artists prefer to use just a limited value range, which can promote harmony in the painting. We will discuss this later in this post.
What Is The Relationship Between Value And Color
Every color has an underlying value somewhere between white and black.
Let's take a look at the relationship between value and color by using the standard color wheel below:
Now here is the standard color wheel with no actual color:
Notice how different colors have different values. Not all colors are equal in terms of light and dark.
Now for each of these colors you can have an individual value scale, with tints all the way up to white and shades all the way down to black.
So as you can imagine, there are an infinite number of potential colors you could mix even with just a limited palette.
Notice how many colors in the color wheel have similar values, despite having very different hues. When placed next to each other these colors would have very little contrast in value and your eye may find it difficult to identify which color has more importance in your painting.
Value is a much more powerful structural element in your paintings compared to the hues you use. In fact, the hues you use have little importance in setting the structure of your paintings. That is not to say color is not important. Color has an extremely powerful physiological importance in your paintings.
In the fauvism movement, artists like Henri Matisse recognized this and he would use wildly inaccurate hues, but the values were generally correct and his paintings still looked somewhat realistic.
I will demonstrate how value can completely set the structure of a painting regardless of color using the following painting by Claude Monet:
Now let's take out all the color from the painting.
As you can see, Monet's values are all true and the structure of the painting is set using these values. The colors have a much more emotional importance in the painting, rather than structural.
If Monet did not use accurate values and tried to differentiate the different objects using just colors, shapes and lines then it would probably look like an abstract painting with very little direction.
This is why many oil painters start with an under painting of dead color just to set out the different values. They then add color on top of that.
Limited Value Ranges
As noted earlier, many artists prefer to utilize a limited range of values in their artworks. This can help promote harmony in the artworks, as it is easier to retain a level of consistency with just a limited value range.
Claude Monet used a very high key value range in many of his paintings (a limited range of high values).
This can produce an almost glimmering effect and is perfect for bright, glaring scenes.
In Claude Monet's painting Impression, he uses a limited range of mid values, apart from the closest boat which is considerably darker in value (this produces a very strong contrast).
In the painting above by John Sargent, a suitably low value range is used to portray this warm interior scene.
Claude Monet utilizes a much broader value range in the painting above, with bright yellows and oranges contrasting against the dark foreground area. To retain harmony in the painting, he seems to only use a limited number of hues in the painting (yellows, oranges, greens and reds). The result is an almost glowing effect, with the strong contrast between the values.
How To Improve Your Understanding Of Value
The absolute best way to improve your understanding of value in art is to draw without color using charcoal and graphite. Drawing takes away the complexity of color and forces you to think in terms of light and dark.
Once you are able to draw value, then all you need to do is incorporate color.
If you try to understand value without forming a solid knowledge base with drawing, then you may struggle to truly appreciate the importance of value (as many seem to be much more interested in the different hues).
This post is not a beat down on color. Color is amazing and should be fully appreciated. However, in order to understand color it is essential that you understand value.
You can read more about color theory here.
I hope this post helps you understand what value in art means and why it is so important.
If you can master the balance between light and dark, then most of the hard work is done in your paintings. You have much more lenience with your selection of hues, provided your values are true.
A common trait among most of the great artists of history is their mastery of value. Most of them placed a priority on mastering drawing much before mastering painting.
If you have any comments regarding value in art, please share them in the section below.