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Do This One Thing To Improve Your Values.

Updated: May 14, 2023

In a previous blog I outlined the meaning of tone and how the description becomes entangled with other meanings, especially values. It really pays to know your terminology because it helps you to understand how to reach #colour mixes and the strengths of colours instead of relying on hit and miss guesswork. In this blog I am going to explain #values.

Value describes how dark or how light a colour is.

Value describes how dark or how light a colour is. We naturally see many grades of value, but for #painting purposes you can simplify what you see and how you interpret it by narrowing down the number of values you use. This generally comes down to choice. A very simple value range would be three values of #white, #mid, and #black, and these will describe forms in a basic three dimensional way.


A more usable scale would be five #values, which is what I use. More complex scales involve seven or more values. Five values is enough, which is based on the three value scale with bridging values in-between. I label my five values as #white, #light, #mid, #dark, and #black.


Value scales

The first thing to do to improve your interpretation of values is to make a #value #scale. Depending on which material you use, will determine on how you approach it.

Oil and acrylic

Begin with straight thick, black #paint. This is your black value. Next, add a tiny amount of #white until you begin to see #grey appearing. This is your #dark value. Add more white to make a #mid value. To make the light value, begin with white and add a tiny amount of black and finally use thick neat white paint for the white value.


Begin with straight thick, black or neutral tint #paint. If you add #water, that is not straight thick paint. What I am referring to here is straight paint from the tube. Yes, to improve your watercolour values, use #tube #paints! Next add a small amount of water to form a double cream consistency. This is your dark value. Add more water to make a mid value. For the light value, begin with a little water and add a tiny amount of black. To depict the white, leave a section of #paper showing.

Progression of values in a painting

When using #opaque colours the progression of values starts with black and works through the value scale to end with light or white. Paintings look more natural this way and it is also the way the brain reads an image – dark first, light on top. When using watercolour, the natural progression is from the white paper through the scale ending in black. There are a couple of ways of progressing the values in a #watercolour. One is to paint what you see directly, as in the #alla #prima approach. The other is to use #layers. When watercolours are layered, the value of the area painted increases, so you can achieve a full range in a painting by constantly adding colour.

painting of a lane heading into trees

En-Route To The Reservoirs, Watercolour 38 x 28cm

A watercolour painted mainly in an alla prima approach. It is important to use layers to generate shape, form and #shadows but the dark trees on the right were painted directly with thick, dark colour.

Use tube paints to increase values in your watercolours and to use them like oil paint in the darker sections

Value placements

It’s always a good idea to achieve a full range of values in your paintings because this will give a rich #depth and eye catching contrast to your work. If you use only the dark end of the scale, your painting is likely to look dull. If you use only the light end of the scale your painting will appear washed out. #Watercolours often appear washed out or ‘wishy washy’ because too much water has been used, thereby diluting the value range. Use tube paints to increase values in your watercolours and to use them like oil paint in the darker sections. Sometimes in a #scene you might have more of one end of the value scale than the other, but providing the full range is evident, you will still achieve contrast and depth. In many cases there will be only a small amount of black value. Shadows, including form #shadows encapsulate the dark value, most of the painting will be mid value, the light will be light value and any white and highlights will be white value.

Building up the values, some in layers, some in an alla prima approach. Some are neat paint, some have water added. Know how you want to interpret the light and how much water or not to mix with colour to achieve a rich balance.

Using the value scale

When you have made a #value #scale, cut it out and use it. Hold it against your reference to gauge which of the five values you are looking at. It helps to half close your eyes at this stage so that the values consolidate. Sometimes you have to make a decision which value to use, for example is it mid value or dark value that you are looking at and how do you want to interpret that? When you work out the varying #strengths in your reference, when you know where your lightest values are and where your darkest values are, you are ready to begin #painting. Remember, watercolours start with the light, so it is important to locate the lights and to paint those first. Oils and acrylics start with the black values, so similarly, locate those and paint them first. Work through the value scale, using your newly made value strip to check off the strength of your paint mixes.

Curiosity, Oil on board 20 x 20cm

In this oil painting I began with the black value of the cows and worked through the scale towards the light. The painting comprises mostly black, dark and mid values and is held together with smaller areas of light value.

Natural colour values

Values don’t just relate to the mixes you create. Even saturated colours have a value, for example yellow is a light value as is yellow-green and yellow-orange. You’ll never reach the darkest possible value with these colours. Blue-violet, violet and red violet are dark values. In fact, notice how violet appears black when painted heavily. Value refers to strength, not colour. A saturated colour has a value just as a tone has a value. You can read more about colour and how to split it into colour, tone and value here.

Paul Talbot-Greaves RI, Artist, Author, Tutor

Paul Talbot-Greaves is a member of the Royal Institute Of Painters In Watercolours, and has been painting and writing for 30 years. He writes many articles for The Artist magazine (UK), has four practical art books published and has contributed to various others. He is represented by numerous galleries based around the North of England. He can be found on Instagram and Facebook where he regularly posts up to date pieces and inspirational stories.

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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Really enjoy your lessons. Thank you


Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

refreshing info on values, and how to paint them.

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