Thus far we covered four elements of design in this series: Shape, Line, Size and Direction. Today we are going to have a look at tonal value. Since understanding value is crucial to good design, and there’s a lot to cover, I’m going to present this topic in several parts. This way the information should be more easy to process. In this article I’m going to talk about value scales and the dual relationship of color & value.

Before proceeding any further, I want to clarify my terminology. The term Tone is generally used in Europe. In my own language – Slovak – we also use the term “Tonality” and “Tone”. In the US, the preferred and more common term is Value. Since I’d been learning from the US based artists my preferred term is value but since I’ve been teaching I actually started combining these two terms so I better communicate my intentions and avoid any possible confusion, resulting in Tonal Value.

So, what actually are tonal values? Tonal values are intervals on the scale of light to dark. They say how light or dark an object is regardless of its color. When considering value, we leave color out of the picture, pun intended. In this article, you’ll learn everything I know about value and how I use it to my advantage when designing a painting.

Value Scale

In a discussion on tonal value we cannot but start with value scale. Value scale is simply a diagram that shows the range of values from light to dark. Before we even start considering any painting problems regarding tonal value, we must understand how to read and record value. The following diagram shows several value scales I find useful for demonstrating most painting problems. Below it I comment on each of the illustrated methods.

Value Scale Diagrams
  1. “‘Full’ (10% Increments) Value Scale” is a simple 11 value scale in 10% increments. A standard gray scale may have up to 255 value increments but of course that is way too much for our needs as painters.
  2. “The Denman Ross Value Scale” is a very sensible range of values limited to total of 9 values, including white and black. This scale was established by Denman Ross in 1907 and it’s still valid today. It does very well in including value range that is sufficient for most any modern painting as well as for very clear demonstration of value keys.
  3. “Highly Reduced Painter’s Value Scale” is my own preferred way to think about values. On the left, you can see a scale that consists of total 5 values. I consider this to be enough for any painting, though the range is usually adjusted slightly in an actual painting based on the particular value key.
    The diagram on the right shows only 4 values, white and black included. This is even more dramatically reduced range. It still covers all the basic needs of a painter for presenting a good design. There’s white and black for highlights and then there’s slightly wider mid-value range. Of course, a full-sized painting may become boring if we strictly stuck with this limit. That being said, this range’s served me well throughout the years when preparing a preliminary value studies for my paintings. If you design with only 4 values you are forced to think in terms of values very clearly and effectively. This reduction is an excellent tool for improving one’s tonal perception.

Especially in watercolor, the value range limit is advantageous in that it teaches us to be very conscious about our shape construction. Shapes are made visible with tonal value. Therefore the function of each shape is considered more carefully if we limit ourselves with a reduced value range. In the Part II we’ll get back to this issue and I’m going to show you plenty of examples with more in-depth explanation. Before we get to that, it is absolutely essential that we discuss another important issue.

Values & Colors

There’s plenty of confusion in the beginner’s mind where color and value is concerned. Therefore I want to stress the importance of the following statement: we must not confuse color for tone. For many beginners color is all there is. Since we see color, we think color and thus we don’t recognize that the world doesn’t make sense to our brain because of the colors of objects we see. If that would be so, cats, dogs and other animals having restricted color vision would be clueless, or at least heavily impaired, as to their spatial orientation. Instead, we make sense of the world by perceiving values from light to dark.

As we established, tonal values are intervals on the scale of light to dark. Understanding the relationship of color and value is not difficult. Once you understand it you can’t forget it. The point is to separate color from value but at the same time to recognize that each color has an inherent tonal value – that is a level of lightness or darkness. Summed up, there are three points I want you to realize:

  1. There’s no color without value.
  2. On the other hand, value is independent from color.
  3. Value is superior to color.

What this means in practice is that you could paint a monochromatic painting and it would read well. You don’t need color, just black, or technically any dark-valued color. Everything would be recognizable and understandable if your values are right, in other words if you understand values and use them correctly to build your painting. Regardless of the amount of abstraction or realism, your painting must read well. The same goes for a painting that was painted in color. Once color is removed – as on the example below, it should still read well. Color is irrelevant in this case. And that’s the final test really and the challenge: to paint with color, but see in tone.

My painting with color removed shows clear spatial configuration regardless of color. Value is the key to achieve good design.
Full color version of the painting

The following diagram should shed more light on the problem. Notice that the first scale shows the 11-value scale. The next example shows a primary triad of yellow, blue and red with a grayscale equivalent next to it. The two following diagrams show where are these colors located on the actual value scale. I think this demonstration should make it very clear for you and help you to recognize the fact that color indeed has an inherent tonal value – that there is no color without value.

Color and Inherent Tonal Value

On the example above, notice how light both the primary red and blue are when placed on a value scale. They barely reach 50% darkness. Maybe you wouldn’t have guessed this to be the case. But it seems that put against a value scale, we can judge our values much more easily. Therefore it may be a good idea to keep a value scale at hand when we paint, until we are sure enough to simply eyeball them. In case you’re interested in having your own value scale, you can print the following picture and keep it in your studio area for future reference until you made enough progress. I don’t recommend using it for too long though as it can make you too lazy and not sensible enough to see values on your own but it may definitely be a good aid until you get familiar with the corresponding values of colors you use. (to download click here)

The Denman Ross Value Scale

And that’s all for today. In the Part II we are going take a look at practical application of the principles we talked about today and see how value is used to design good paintings. As always, let me know about any questions you may have in the comments down below.



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