In Part I we talked about value scales and the relationship of value and color. Now that we understand how color and value work, we’re going to put this knowledge into practice.

As we discussed in the previous article (and I highly recommend you to read it before proceeding), proper, and to an extent, accurate judgment of each individual color and the infinite mixes you make throughout your painting process takes time and practice. But the more we paint, the better we get at it. We must realize that we are not after perfect results, a solid estimation is all we need. All the same, an estimation can be only solid if it’s backed by experience. Therefore I recommend you to paint as much as you can. In this case I definitely recommend quantity over quality. Of course, making full size paintings (even if only half or quarter sheet) is not necessarily the most convenient way to learn the very basics for a couple of reasons. There is the cost of materials, which I know is an inhibiting element for many of us, and then there is the emotional distress from producing a fair number of “bad” finished paintings. And during the learning stage we cannot avoid these moments regardless of how much we’d like to. So, what can we do about it? Is there some way to avoid this? Is there a shortcut? Yes, there actually is!

The shortcut to getting the hang of value quickly is through a habit of making a value study (or value sketch, value plan, value pattern) as a preparation before each painting. I would go so far as to say that this “study” is more important than the painting itself. You not only figure out how to simplify your subject but you basically learn how to understand the mechanics of watercolor as a technique. Value studies are so very important yet so underrated! The benefits we gain by committing to this practice are immense, especially in the beginnings.

Since we make value studies in the same fashion that we paint in watercolor we train ourselves in the process of making a painting. Think of it as kind of a dry run. We go through the process of designing a painting with shape and value, the two most basic building blocks of any painting. It helps us remove the freeze-factor, meaning we get to know the subject well before we even pick up a brush and we familiarize ourselves with the procedure as well. When we then stand up in front of a sheet of clean watercolor paper we no longer feel as hesitant and reluctant to even begin. We simply know what we’re going to do. Our concern at that point is color and texture. We have a solid foundation, which we’re going to “make look pretty” by using color and texture.

The Process

Making a value study is no big deal. But there are several steps we definitely want to follow to be as effective as possible. Following are these steps explained in detail.

Step #1: Materials

Step no. 1 is to get a sketchbook – linked is an article I’ve written on my sketchbook practice. I explain my reasons for keeping a sketchbook. If you don’t keep a sketchbook at this point, I encourage you to take a look at the article and decide whether you want to use sketchbook or not. A piece of printer or scrap paper will do if don’t want to use a sketchbook. Choose whatever makes you comfortable. You don’t want your materials to feel precious to use at this point – at any point for that matter.

The size of the paper you use matters. The default size I recommend using is format A5 or A4. This is European sizing but A4 corresponds roughly to US letter paper format which is 8.5″ by 11″. A5 is simply the paper folded in half. While A4 offers you enough space to be much clearer about designing your shapes, A5 has the advantage of discouraging you from making your study too detailed. So fold your A4 or 8.5 x 11 in half and try out this format first. If it seems insufficient, go for the full sheet.

Now as to the tools with which we make our values, there are several options. For the drawing of the subject we can use pen or a pencil. To actually “fill-in” the values we can use either soft pencil (softness 4B and up, 6B being probably the best option), markers or even a watercolor wash. I’ll demonstrate all three later in the article.

Step #2: The Subject

Select the simplest subject you can find. Landscapes work best for this exercise. You can attempt to do a still-life but I’d avoid it at this point as it may present some obstacles you may not recognize just yet. The same goes for portraits.

Of course, finding a simple subject is not at all easy. The most simplistic paintings are usually made from quite a complex reference. It’s the artist’s ability to filter out what’s not essential that makes it look so simple. Anyway, since this is an article on value, I don’t want to include too much off-topic information but if you’d like to learn more, included is a link to a demonstration where I discuss this topic in more detail.

*Recommended resource: Visit my article titled “Seeing Simply” for more information about subject handling. It’s a two-part demo so don’t forget to look for the part II. There’s also Russell Black’s perspective if you’re interested in even more information and a different approach.

Step #3: Contour Drawing

Before working on the subject itself, first draw a rectangle on the paper roughly in the ratio of your watercolor paper. This will not only help you better keep correct proportions when transferring the drawing onto your watercolor paper but also encourage you to truly engage in shape-making. This way you can more clearly recognize not only positive, but negative shapes as well.

Drawing rectangle/border; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

After having your rectangle in place, dilute your subject into a very clear set of shapes. If you don’t understand composition that well yet, don’t worry about it for now. Our task at hand is to understand value. Still though you want to make a pen or pencil drawing with clearly defined shapes of your subject. As I said, don’t worry about redesigning what you see if you’re not that far at this point, just put down clearly defined shapes suggesting the subject. Think shapes, not things.

1. Contour drawing; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

*Recommended resource: If you want to learn a bit more about how I approach subject simplification, you can visit my article titled “Seeing Simply”. It’s a two-part demo so don’t forget to look for the part II. There’s also Russell Black’s perspective if you’re interested in even more information and a different approach.

Now one last thing regarding your contour drawing is that we must not confuse the process of making a contour drawing for the purpose of value study for a regular sketch of a subject you may do when you’re out and about. Think of the drawing as a map. We want accuracy, or rather definition, of our shapes and values. No unnecessary lines, no “hiding” and blurring of lines and shapes. We want a clear idea of the subject through a set of good, solid and clear shapes.

*Recommended resource: Read more about shape configuration in my article on Shape.

Step #4.1: Value Allocation Concerns

Reduced Value Range Recommended for Pre-painting Value Studies

For our actual value allocation we’re going to stick to the reduced 4-value scale above. Our white is the white of the paper.

When using pencil, our mid-values and darks are going to be created by varying pressure, thus resulting in lighter or darker tone. It is recommended to use vertical lines for our values to avoid the suggestion of movement into depth. Slants are energetic as we learned in my article on Direction. Avoid those. At this point we only want to work out tonality of the scene and therefore we want to keep our values as flat as possible.

When using watercolor, the black can be any dark-valued paint, I like Ivory Black or Sepia. You can use Payne’s Gray or whatever else you have at hand. Mid-range is then produced by diluting the paint with water.

When using markers, you need to select a black and two middle valued gray markers.

Before proceeding to allocate your values, I recommend photocopying or scanning the contour drawing so you can experiment with various value patterns without redrawing it all over again. On the example below you can see a sheet of portrait studies where I considered my value options in several variations before I went on to tackle the actual painting. These were small so I didn’t need to photocopy them as they were easy to redraw. The point is that these demonstrate my thinking process in terms of value and how I made an effort to look for the most suitable value pattern before approaching the finished painting, as well as to emphasize that there is really no one solution. We are problem solvers and we need to work out what we consider to be the best solution out of many. Explore and look for answers.

There’s no one solution. There’s ideas. Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

Step #4.2: Value Allocation Process

As to the actual process (which you’ll find demonstrated on video down below), we start by considering which shapes we want to keep white. These are going to be left out as they would do so in an actual painting, since watercolor’s white is the white of the paper.

Now that we left out our whites, we cover the rest of the picture with a light middle value. This takes care of our whites.

2. Reserved whites + light middle value; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

Now we add definition to the objects and planes in the picture with dark middle value.

3. Dark middle value; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

Finally we add darks. Our darks here don’t correspond to the darkest darks in an actual watercolor painting, since those are only used as accents. In this preparatory stage – since we’re limited to 4 values – we use our darks as a final solid value step. I’ve not been explained this back when I was starting out and often omitted this final increment, reducing the strength of my value sketch due to reserving my darks only to accents as one would do so in a painting scenario.

4. Dark value – finished; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

Step #5: Image Transfer

Now that we made sure we have a very solid contour drawing and strong value allocation, we need to transfer our subject onto the watercolor paper. I no longer do this as I seldom draw on my watercolor paper anymore, but this was an integral part of my process in the past. Transferring our drawing accurately is very important. So how to do it? We use a simple grid trick.

5. Image Transfer – A Grid; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

This 4 x 4 grid device divides the picture into chunks that are easily handled. I draw the same grid on the watercolor paper itself and simply redraw section by section onto the watercolor paper. See the finished painting based on the demonstrated value study below.


Find a further example of an actual drawn study below as well as finished painting based on it. Look at the finished work and compare it to the sketch. The finished painting is done on 22 x 30 in. full sheet watercolor paper. Transferring my little sketch to such a large sheet of paper might have been tricky had I not used the grid.

4 x 4 grid allows for easier image transfer; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

You can also use simple 2 x 2 grid as well but if you’re not as experienced you may find the 4 x 4 much more convenient. This final step is certainly not necessary if you can do without it but to me personally this was a great help especially back when I was starting out.

Demonstrations of the Process

There’s a selection of older videos on my YouTube channel where you can see the process of making a value study recorded. They are old and not of the quality of my new videos but the basic process is valid. In the videos you’ll also get further information about the tools I use for each particular study. These, however, don’t include example of my showing the transference of the sketch onto the watercolor paper.

After the videos I include some more examples of value studies from my sketchbooks all the way from 2012 when I first adopted this habit.

In this first video I work in my A5 sized sketchbook. For my drawing I use pencil and I use watercolor to allocate my values.

I include the following videos so you can see how I make a study using pencil, watercolor and markers. These are smaller size but the process remains unchanged.


Now that we discussed in detail the process of making a value study as well as watched it demonstrated on video, let me just quickly recapitulate so you have access to a brief and clear reference as to the process.

  1. Select your materials: A5 size paper (or US 8.5″ x 5.5″), soft 4B and up pencil, watercolor or markers for value allocation.
  2. Select the simplest subject you can find.
  3. Make a rectangle on your paper. Then make a contour drawing of the subject with clearly defined shapes. Think shapes, not things.
  4. Value allocation: use limited value range of 4 values (including white and black). Decide on your whites. Put light middle value over the whole picture except your whites. Then add further definition of objects and planes with dark middle value. Finally add further definition with your dark-valued layer.
  5. Transfer your drawing onto a watercolor paper using 4 x 4 grid.

Examples of Finished Studies

Following are some examples of finished value studies as well as paintings that resulted from them.

Example #1


Above is a very early example of my value study. This was done on A4 format and you can notice that my drawing is far from clean in terms of shapes. I draw like a novice draws. I use unnecessary lines and though I still did a good job, this kind of reference may be more difficult to follow.

Example #2


This example (above) is substantially more refined. You can pretty much trace shape by shape, clearly defining my intentions. Below is a finished painting based on this sketch.

Example #3


In this example (above) I use pen only for my values. This is a loose, almost sloppy, drawing and not very well done. Still I tried to stick to vertical strokes as to not suggest movement, only value. Surprisingly one of my favorite pictures of all time resulted from this sketch (below).


Example #4


This value study is made with an almost dried up marker that I’ve had for around two decades. It was actually fun making this one for the large swoopy shapes. Notice the grid – as you can see I cropped my value study from the original idea. The original composition lacked tension, or rather it stressed it in the wrong area – the crop works much better. The painting that resulted from this sketch (below) is in a private collection. I always very much liked it though, the limited almost monochromatic color harmony with a touch of color in the boat has kind of a tranquil quality to it.


Example #5


This value study is an excellent example of what we talked about earlier – about the value study preparing and training us in the actual watercolor mechanics. You can see that this is pretty much a finished work in that it explains all that this scene can offer. Notice (below) that the finished painting, though more polished and colorful, doesn’t say that much more than the sketch itself.


Example #6

I stressed that the size of the paper we use for our studies matters. Of course, there’s exception to every rule (although I don’t consider my advice rules). My point is that we don’t have to necessarily make a big deal of these studies. If you like more spontaneous working procedure, you can make a small study on a scrap paper you have at hand and still make it work. Following is example of study I did on a spare square space I had on an unrelated piece of paper. I didn’t wait to get home and make a “proper” value study. No, I sketched it out then and there.

A finished value study; Image: ©2018 ATELIER NOVOTNY

Example #7


In this final example I want to show you a little bit different approach. This is a value study that is not done traditionally as explained above. In this case I used tracing paper, not photocopy, to make a copy of my drawing (below).


Then I used marker for all values except white. Since my intentions with the painting were that I wanted to employ calligraphy as a main attraction, most of my whites are the calligraphic shapes. The painting below is a result of such treatment.


And that’s all for today. In the Part III we are going to move further from the basic mechanics of tonal value towards considering the bigger picture. As always, let me know about any questions you may have in the comments down below.



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  1. Vasco July 19, 2018 at 03:32

    Great article and beautiful images, Daniel.

  2. John Hill January 16, 2018 at 18:30

    A great article.
    Useful and inspirational.
    Thank you, Daniel.

    1. Daniel Novotny January 16, 2018 at 19:27

      Hi John
      Thank you, I’m glad it was of interest to you. Much appreciate the visit as always.


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