Thus far we discussed the importance of understanding and seeing value instead of color as well as demonstrated practical application of using value for building a strong paintings. Now that we understand these concepts, we may move away from the basic mechanics of value and color and take a look at the bigger picture.

Value Keys

Of course, when speaking of value/tonal keys, we don’t mean literal keys. Think music. Musician “keys” music just as we, painters, “key a painting”. Value key is the first step towards recognizing the bigger picture. Now we no longer concern ourselves with the values of individual shapes, rather we conceive the painting as an abstract value configuration. If you remember my article on Shape, we’ve already discussed similar concept in great detail. The same principle applies here. A painting is nothing more than an abstract configuration of value shapes.

In the previous articles we discussed value scales and showed a relatively limited value scale that’s been in use for quite a few decades, called “Denman Ross Value Scale”. This scale goes from light to dark in 9 tonal intervals (including white and black).

There are two main keys in painting: high key and low key. The diagram below shows where on the Denman Ross scale are the two keys found.

Value Keys and Intervals

To clarify, the two value keys shown above are:

  • High Key = Light Values, that is the majority of tones in a painting are located above middle tone.
  • Low Key = Dark Values, on the other hand is a composition of values in majority found below middle value.

An example of a high key painting is the following portrait of Anne. Notice that the majority of values used are around and below middle value.


Now in this particular painting I gradate color intensity as well as use value key to convey a very intense life energy. If I wanted to achieve opposite effect, that is a different, intense dark energy, I could use a different color scheme but it wouldn’t be certainly as effective as switching to a low value key.

And I did exactly that in the next example of a low value key painting – the portrait of Patrick.


His complexion, of course, is a given. But I had the choice to make the background light to contrast the value of his face. It would brighten up the entire painting but the effect of his deep, intense stare would be most probably lost. Therefore, a low key painting was the answer.

But what about value keys in landscape painting? Following is an example of low value key landscape painting.


This painting undoubtedly evokes night. The majority of tones are far below middle value. There are some contrasting lights to balance the value pattern but overall, the painting is definitely in low key.

The next example is a high key landscape painting. I painted this one back in 2013 or ’14 if I remember correctly.


The subject is a lighthouse in Nice, France. Notice that tones are kept above middle value. This may not be the perfect example of a high key painting as far as color is concerned but regarding value it works. There’s plenty of light and the interlocking “water” shape is light middle value. The major thrusts are reinforced with darker middle value which still doesn’t overpower the overall delicate effect of the whole.

We discussed low and high value keys but I also want to mention a middle key. All paintings are predominantly high or low in key but a large majority of them could be certainly categorized as “middle key”. It is simply because, many times, middle key, especially in landscapes, is the value that is present in majority. Middle tone tends to “carry” paintings. The reason for this is that color is found in middle value. But having midvalue-only painting would not be ideal either. Since finding a good value rhythm is, from design perspective, about contrasting values, we almost always need to push a painting towards one end of the spectrum. Otherwise our design could be lacking.

What Value Keys Achieve

A very practical explanation of why we discuss value keys at all is that we use values to express or emphasize certain characteristic of our subject. A key in a painting may, to a large extent, be dictated, or at least suggested, by the subject itself. Delicate flower arrangement on a sunny window sill could not possibly result in a low key painting, unless extreme liberties in handling value are employed. On the other hand, a walk in the forest will certainly produce a low key result.

But value keys are not necessarily about the values we find naturally in a subject. We could end up with a disastrous results more often than not. Design is all about manipulating values, including the entire value keys. It is our responsibility to be conscious of the effects we want to achieve and then adjusting our subject to meet that goal.

This is a very basic but probably the most profound reason to think about value keys. Despite the fact that our viewers are seldom (if at all) conscious of perceiving value, we know that that’s the first thing their brains evaluate. Therefore we must intentionally design our paintings so the desired effect is achieved.

And that’s all for today. In the Part IV we are going to finish this series with the discussion on value rhythm or pattern. As always, let me know about any questions you may have in the comments down below.



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