"How Values will Change the Quality of your Paintings Forever" 

What You'll Learn in this Lesson

I want to teach you about the importance of values, or in other words, the light, dark, and mid-tones in your paintings. Once you grasp and apply the notion of values in your paintings it will make a huge difference to the success of your artwork.

Values (or “tone” if you prefer)

I didn’t get it... 

I had just finished my latest watercolor. My underlying sketch was pretty good. I’d included all the details from my reference photo. But when I stood back to “admire” my work, something was lacking!

What I eventually figured out was missing, and what I want to show you today, is the concept of values

The notion of values is pretty simple. Some people sometimes refer to the same idea as “tones”. Values refer to the level of darkness or lightness of a particular color. 

Tips & Tricks

Equipped with what you learned in the last lesson about water-to-paint ratios you can try painting a value scale like this for yourself!

Our eyes perceive the world as a series of colored shapes with different values. If you can interpret those shapes and values in your watercolor paintings, this will go a loooong way to creating a believable sense of light and space.

The problem with my first attempts at watercolor painting was that they all looked pale and a little bit bland. They lacked contrast and depth, and their range of values was very timid. 

Here’s an example where I try to illustrate what I mean:

I’m sure you’ll agree the painting on the left looks flat. You can’t perceive any depth. You can probably guess from the shape that it’s a representation of a carrot, but the result isn’t very convincing.

Compare this to the example on the right. You can see some highlights and dark shading. There’s a higher level of contrast and a more convincing sense of three-dimensional space.

Ok… Perhaps this is an exaggerated example. But it helps to illustrate the important role that values play in a painting. And this was something that was totally missing in my first watercolor paintings - I just didn't even think about this!

And I should probably stress just how important values can be for achieving positive results. The interesting thing about a painting with correct values is that you don’t even have to be particularly accurate with your painting, and you don’t necessarily need a lot of details ! If the values are good, it results in an effective painting. And it’s not just about making an object look three-dimensional:

  • Values suggest the direction of light.
  • Gradations of values can help create an illusion of depth or distance.
  • Contrasting values create focal points in your painting (it’s been shown that the human eye is attracted to the point of greatest contrast).
  • Knowing how to use values for focal points can improve the composition of your paintings.
  • Values help add three-dimensional form to the shapes in your painting.

Working with values in watercolor painting

So how do you apply correct values to your artwork?

Observation is a key part of how to improve as an artist. In the past I wasn’t looking at my subjects the right way. I wasn’t looking at the values of the shapes. 

But as soon as you start making a conscious effort to estimate the lights, darks and mid-tones of your subjects, your observation skills gradually improve over time.

Here are a few tips on how you can start developing your skills at judging values:

  1. 1
    Make a monochrome value study of your subject. Painting in monochrome removes all color variables from your subject. This lets you focus on the essentials. Keep it simple and try to establish just the light, mid, and dark tones of the subject. If you’re working from a photograph you can try making a grayscale copy of it to help you see better. In life situations I’ve sometimes seen artists hold up a sheet of colored cellophane in front of the subject to reduce the view to a single monochrome color (red works well).
  2. 2
    You can either make or purchase a simple value scale. This can be used as a value finder by simply holding it up to the subject, then peering through the holes until you get a match. Here’s one that I picked up from Amazon:
value finder
  1. 3
    Squint! Yep… In general when you look at a subject you can get overwhelmed by the details. Squiniting simplifies the shapes of what you’re looking at and can help you discern the different values.
  2. 4
    Isolate small parts of the subject to better evaluate the values. For example, I use a small piece of watercolor paper with a hole cut in the middle. Place this on top of your reference photo or in front of your subject. Isolating in this way removes the distraction of the other parts, and allows you to better judge the values against the whiteness of your paper square.

Tips & Tricks

Sometimes the values are not very accurate when you work from a reference photo. Or maybe you’re painting a real life subject which is poorly lit. You can vastly improve your painting by forcing the contrast in your painting. In other words, reserve the white of the paper to make highlights that pop, and deepen the shading and shadows so you get a larger range of values. After all… You’re the artist. You can interpret the subject however you like!


The terms “Value” and “tone” refers to the lightness or darkness of a particular color. Value is one of the seven fundamental elements of art, but probably one of the most important. It can be a powerful tool in your artwork. Pay closer attention to values in your next painting and I’m sure you’ll find it makes a real difference!


How are you finding the lessons so far? Do me a favor and send me a quick email using the form below. Let me know about your painting and what you're struggling with...