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The Elements of Art - VALUE

A Guide for Teachers

VALUE: It’s an underappreciated element that I find doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. Teachers and art instructors point it out all the time, but you may not know what it is to begin with. While your first thought is probably value in terms of money, it’s also an element of art! Trust me -- it’s nowhere near as difficult as tracking the stock market. Value simply tells you how light and dark your colours are!

Not a fan of reading? Don’t worry. We have a short and sweet video called Value: Elements of Art Explained that gives you a fun and quick rundown of the element!

What Is Value?

The definition of value, also known as tone, is how light or dark an image is, and how those lights and darks are organized. It’s much easier to understand and visualize them when put into a scale or a gradient. When a colour is lighter, that means it has a lighter value, white being the lightest value you can have. When a colour is darker, that means it has a darker value, black being the darkest value you can have. Value tends to go hand in hand with the element of design, contrast. So let’s talk a bit about that!

High Contrast

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

When creating a piece, usually you’ll want to use a wide range of values so that different objects within a scene are distinguishable from one another. This means that you’ll want your values to have high contrast. When something has high contrast, it usually has values that range all the way from dark (black) to light (white). For instance, if you had a dark room with a single bright spotlight pointed down on an object, the light would contrast heavily against the dark room.

Portrait of Melissa Thompson by Kehinde Wiley
Portrait of Melissa Thompson by Kehinde Wiley

An example of high contrast is Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. While the woman is made up of mostly mid to light values, the background is almost pure black, creating very high contrast between the two. Another painting with the same effect is Portrait of Melissa Thompson by Kehinde Wiley. But instead, the main subject is made up of darker values, while the background is made up of light values.

High contrast is what’s generally desirable, which is why your teachers always tell you to “pump up your values” when drawing. But I’d argue that it’s not always necessary (while this sounds like a modern art take like the eyestrain one from our blog about colour, I promise that it’s actually not!) Let’s talk about low contrast next.

Low Contrast

Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet
Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet

Low contrast is pretty much just the opposite of high contrast. Low contrast pieces either have a similar range of values, or they have such a wide range of values that are scattered around the piece that there’s no center of focus. The majority of the time, low contrast is avoided because it can be hard to distinguish forms from one another. However, as I mentioned before, high contrast isn’t always necessary.

An illustration of 3 characters shown twice. On the left, the piece is in colour, while on the right the piece is in black and white.
Line art is the perfect solution for low-contrast colours!

Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet is an example of high contrast being completely unnecessary. Looking at this piece in black and white, you can see that it’s all just a cloud of mid-toned greys. But in colour, you can clearly see a sunrise over a foggy harbour. That’s because Monet relied more on colour to distinguish forms in his paintings, not value.

Artists nowadays also have line art to rely on if the colours in their piece are all low contrast. The line art practically cuts out all the pieces for you, whether it’s dark line art with light colours, or vice versa. Digital artists also have access to certain functions that allow them to constantly and accurately check the values of their colour choices.

Values And Forms

An illustration of a cone and a cube shown twice. On the left, the contrast is very low, while on the right the contrast is quite high.
Value can express forms without line!

Whether working with high contrast or low contrast, the main use for value is to show forms. When you look at a photograph, more likely than not you’ll see a lot of shadows and colours that distinguish the forms within that photo. This is why value is a key factor needed for realistic drawing! While realistic drawing uses value to express its forms, line expresses shapes better. This is why line is more often used in 2D cartoons, and value isn’t always as necessary.

Atmospheric Perspective

A painting of a forest and a fox on the left, and a digital illustration of an angel boy on the right.
Atmospheric perspective is used to make the trees and the limbs of the angel look farther away!

Atmospheric perspective is a technique artists use to show something growing farther into the distance. If you’ve ever been somewhere high up and looked out onto a cityscape or a mountain range, you may notice that objects begin to disappear as they move farther away. That’s atmospheric perspective!

It’s usually landscape artists that use this technique (how the trees in the fox painting fades to show depth), but it’s a technique that’s also favoured by some character artists. They use this to emphasize foreshortening, or to show the distance between limbs. Can you spot the use of atmospheric perspective in the angel illustration?

How Value Affects Mood

Two screenshots, one of the game Rime, the other of the game Hollow Knight.
Rime (above) is far more soothing than Hollow Knight (below)!

Value is also a partial factor into the overall mood of a piece. Colour, saturation and value are what determine the mood of a piece. Usually, artwork with higher saturation and lighter values tend to be happier or more lighthearted, whereas pieces with lower saturation and darker values tend to be sad or mysterious or moody.

A screenshot from the game Hollow Knight.
Even though the values are dark, its mood is still very calming!

Let’s take a look at the cover art for the game Rime and a screenshot from the game Hollow Knight. Both use predominantly blue colour schemes, but have very different moods. Rime feels very calming and peaceful, using predominantly light values and low contrast, depending on colours more than values just like Monet. Hollow Knight feels somewhat eerie and a little sad, using far deeper tones and a very high contrast between the light above the well and the dark background.

While that rule can apply to most pieces, it isn’t true 100% of the time. Taking a look at one more screenshot from Hollow Knight, the mood suddenly feels far different compared to the original Hollow Knight screenshot. While the first was fairly dreary, this one feels a lot more calming. That’s because the subject matter is also a determining factor of the mood of a piece. While the first screenshot was of a dusty and abandoned area, the second is of a bench and lamp post in a lush forest, which is far more soothing.

There you have it! While value and contrast usually come hand in hand with one another, they also work together with colour. With all three combined, they can show depth, set the mood for a piece, and show form better without lines! Even though value isn’t the most difficult to understand element, it has such a wide range of possibilities in art because of its very flexible rules. Have fun with your values, and make sure that they’re purposeful. Once you have that down, you’re bound to create some stunning works of art!

Want to learn more about value, and how to apply it? You can learn to use it for the first time in our drawing foundations class! If you’re a little more advanced with your artwork, consider checking out our realistic drawing class, and if you want more resources on the elements of art, find them on our art resources for teachers section on our blog!

Teacher Resources:

If you’re a teacher that’s looking for classroom content centered around the element of arts, value, visit this quick and easy resource!

If you’d like more worksheets related to the elements and principles of art, check out our teachers pay teachers page, where you can get worksheets and lesson plans for your classroom! More classroom resources like this one can be found on our art resources for teachers page, where we’ve covered all of the elements of art.

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