Saturday, August 8, 2015

Learn about Values! Step by Step! Class #1

The Magic of Values in the Acrylic Landscape
Class #1
by Karen Ilari

Join me in this step by step class - learn to see and match values. 

First let's talk about values, what they are and how they help make better paintings...
There is a lot to think about when you are painting. And a lot to learn! Let's start with this - there are four main concepts to master in painting:

  • Values
  • Drawing
  • Edges
  • Color

The first and most important, especially for landscape painting, is VALUE
It is also the area that most painters struggle with, especially at the beginning.

What is Value? Simply how light or dark something is.

To illustrate, we use a Value Scale. This is a gradation of 9 values from Black to White

You can hold it up against your work and your reference to compare.

The challenge is to train your eye to see value, whether in a reference photo or in real life. Our natural tendency is to see color and form over value. We will notice first that something is red, or blue and paint it that way. Or that is an object we recognize, and what shape it is. You have to learn to stop and REALLY SEE WHAT IS THERE! In reality red in light and shadow are very different in value and color. In fact black in light can be lighter than pink or yellow in shadow. Sometimes an object and its background will be the same value! Creating lost edges - where you can't see where one thing stops and the next starts.

As an example, let's take a look at this painting of mine "In the Morning Light" :

You can see that his dark grey T shirt in sunlight is a lighter value than the light brown  and white of the sign in shadow, or the white lettering on the awning in shadow.

So we have to learn to see the values first, before color, and then to match them. 

Supplies: Mars Black and Titanium White Heavy Body Acrylic Paint.
                watercolor paper
                flat synthetic brush - about 1/2" wide
                water container, paper towels, palette
Copy the value scale above and print it out. Preferable on photo paper. 
Now match these values and paint your own 9 value scale! Easy! You might be surprised!
This gives you practice in focusing on seeing and matching a value. And if you are new to acrylics, some time to get used to how they feel. Don't use any mediums, just paint and water. Keep the paint thick and try to create thoroughly mixed squares of even value. You can punch a small hole through the middle of each value on your printed scale. This way you can hold it right on top of your work to isolate the value and see if you have a match.
And remember - ACRYLICS DRY DARKER! So don't be surprised if your perfect wet value is too dark when it dries! This is just something you learn to compensate for in painting with acrylics, so this exercise is good practice for that too!

Okay, Now that you have done that.... 

What do Values do for us? 

  • Distance - as things recede into the distance, they get lighter. They also lose some of the contrast. In other words - the lights get darker, the darks get lighter. The value range is higher on the value scale and closer together.
 Here is another of my paintings to illustrate - "Summer Pond"

Take a look at the trees - compare the value on the sunlit side and shadow side of the tree in the foreground and those in the middle and background. Do you see how the lights get darker and the darks lighter progressively as you move back in space? This - along with size, color and detail, creates the illusion of distance.

  • Light - the contrast from sunlight to shade. A sunny day will have strong value contrasts. An overcast day will have values that are darker and with less contrast - closer on the value scale. In fact you can "push" the values - make the lights lighter and the darks darker - in your reference to create a more sunny day! Magic!

  •  Form -  In a dark room you can't see form at all. It is the light as it strikes the surfaces of an object that describe its shape to us. On the other extreme a very bright light setting, with light hitting all the surfaces, will wash out an object so we can't see its form. Correct placement of values on an object are key to it looking real.

  •  Composition - The patterns formed by light and dark in a painting are key not only to realism, but to its visual impact. We draw the eye and lead it around our painting by using contrast. Reducing your image to a simple design of 3 or 5 values will reveal its essence. The abstract pattern that is at the core. Once reduced in this way you can manipulate the forms to best tell your story.

So - now let's do a little painting - and practice seeing and matching values some more:
Exercise #2 
Supplies: Same as exercise #1, but this time use a 9" x 12" stretched canvas or canvas panel.  

Step One: Choose a photo
We start with a simple reference photo like this one. I chose this for it's simple large shapes, forms progressing into the distance and the obvious effects of light and shadow.

I've already cropped it to the size and placement I wanted - 12" wide by 9" tall. I've even added some to the left hand side in photoshop because I wanted my tree to be about a third of the way from the side. These are compositional ideas that we will talk more about in another lesson. I used the "Rule of Thirds" which means dividing your canvas into a tic-tac-toe and then putting main elements on the intersections of the lines, and main divisions - like the horizon or edge of the field on the thirds.

Step Two: Change your photo to Black and White:
You can use any photo program to change your color photo reference to a black and white version. I use Photo Shop Elements. Then choose Enhance -> Adjust Color -> Remove Color.

Step Three: Paint your image with only 5 Values
The key tool for seeing values is to squint your eyes - or blur them - soften your focus.  
The idea is to make a decision in each area as to which of your five values its closest to and then simplify the forms, removing the detail. Keep your forms simple - big geometric shapes with no detail at all. Mix your color on your palette so you get a nice even tone. Clearly defining the value of each shape. You will end up with something like this:

It looks simple but it isn't! Don't be discouraged if this takes you a long time! I find I have to keep stepping back and reminding myself to look at the LARGE shapes, not the details! Though there are lighter and darker areas in each shape, you want to look for the overall value you see when you squint your eyes. Remember - NO DETAIL - LARGE SHAPES - SOLID EVEN TONES

But that doesn't look real! You're right! We are starting at the most basic building blocks. The foundation for our painting. We are using our creativity to tell the story from our own unique perspective. Once you have blocked in what you see, Ask yourself some questions...

How Can I Improve this Image?
Are there areas that are confusing in the photo? Not enough value shift to really see the distance? CHANGE THEM! At this point you can clearly see those shapes. are they working?  Use your artistic license and tell your own story.

Do the forms create an interesting, appealing pattern?
  • Avoid half dark, half light. Thirds are always nice. I've chosen about 1/3 dark, with the rest medium or light
  • Is the focal point shape clear and placed in the best spot? The large tree is our focal point.
  • Use big shapes, connect your shapes, avoid polka dots - isolated spots
  • Look at the form shapes - are they appealing? I changed my tree shape so it wasn't quite so square, and had branches come down to connect with the shadow.
Are you Leading the Eye?
  • Provide an entrance into your painting. Here I've altered and emphasized the area of light wildflowers in the photo to use it as a path for the viewer to follow into the painting.
  • Define your focal point. The area with the highest contrast will draw the eye first. I have chosen the tree as my focal point and am using the light value and form of the fallen log, the light value of the flowers, the spots of sky peaking through and darkening the value of the tree itself to really define it as the center of interest. It is the area with the darkest darks and lightest lights
  • Create movement and rhythm. Once you have led the eye in and to your focal point, be aware of the lines that the eye will follow next. Don't have lines that lead them directly out of your painting. In mine the eye will go from the tree to the mid ground trees whose shape leads the eye up and around in circular motions that bring it back to the foreground.
  • Leading Lines. The large shapes in your painting will create lines. Be sure they are supporting your focal point, and not leading the eye out of the picture.
Here you can see the lines that invite the viewer in and to the focal point, then around and back in. Without the forms of the mid ground trees "stopping" the eye, it would just travel right out of your painting. You want to keep your viewer engaged and directed back into your painting.

 You can also see how all the other lines formed by the shapes lead to the focal point.

WOW! That's a lot to think about for this simple little design!
Yes! It is!
But remember, this is your foundation! There is a lot of design and planning that goes into this stage. Each step builds on the next. If your foundation is strong, your painting will be strong. It will catch the viewer's eye from across the room and draw them right in.

Remember, as you train your eye and hand, this stage will take less and less time. In time you will not need to physically go through this step, but will visualize it in your mind before you start.

And you will be soooo happy when this concept falls into place. Your paintings will take a huge leap!

Exercise # 3
Find some images to practice with. Magazines, online, any will do. Look for the elements described above. Distance, Simple shapes, clear light and shadow.

Use your 5 values of paint on some watercolor paper

Paint a bunch of small 5 value studies of these images. Just 3" x 4" or so.

       No detail

 Large shapes

 Define the focal point

 Show the distance

Create appealing design

Click here to go on to Class #2!

And don't forget to share your progress in the comments....


  1. This is great Karen! Thanks so much for all you do for us Ilarians!

  2. This is a good article.... but why not work from life?

    1. Hi Jessica! Working from life is excellent! I love plein air painting. Not very practical with an online class like this, though.

  3. thank you so much for this!!!

  4. Thank you so much Karen! My face is lopsided on your site, but now my values and edges will be so much better. I did this exact values thing once and then thought I was doing the wrong thing. Turns out it is the right idea. I will have the confidence to keep on with it.

    1. Thank you Heather - sorry I just saw this comment!
      There is something about values that just takes a while to get I think. I know it did me! Keep up the good work :)

  5. Even the value painting looks so pleasing to the eye! An abstract interpretation of nature.

  6. Karen, I am totally confused. I tried the black to white value slide, but it didn't work. It was almost totally black. When do you use the white

    1. Hi Anna, well you use the white paint to mix with the black and make the shades of grey in between black and white... Does that help?

  7. Hi Karen, this is very helpful, thanks! I'm new to painting and new to your website. would you kindly clarify what it means by "Avoid half dark, half light. Thirds are always nice. I've chosen about 1/3 dark, with the rest medium or light". Thanks in advance

    1. Glad you are finding it helpful!
      So what I'm referring to is the composition. When you have simplified your image into large simple shapes of one value, you will see a pattern of dark values, medium values and light values. For a pleasing composition you want to avoid having half of the painting in dark values, half in light values. In my painting about 1/3 of the painting is dark values, the rest medium or light values. Does that help?

  8. Thanks Karen, so it will be like having 1/3 of the painting in value scale 1 to 3, 1/3 in value scale 4 to 6, and 1/3 in 7 to 9? I may be over simplifying this, thanks for your patience.

    1. Ha ha, yes, well that's a bit more precise than I was thinking. It's not a hard a fast rule or a formula. More just to stay away from the painting being 1/2 dark and 1/2 light. None of the values will be really precise as every reference calls for something different. Stand across the room, or look at the painting in a mirror. Get that overall impression.

  9. I'm very excited, because I'm going to post (I'll try) my first "values" exercise that I've found very helpful. Thank you very much Karen! I don't know if I'll be able to upload the picture here, but I'll find out the way, soon or later :) Maybe you can help me suggesting where I can go to upload my picture. Thank you and greetings from Italy to all of you. (sorry for my English)

    1. Hi Monica! Yes, I'd love to see your progress! The best way is to go to my free teaching website:
      There you can join in the discussion for this class and post your photos!

    2. perfect! I did it and I had your precious comment! thank you very much for all Karen! Right now I have reminded of a saying that goes more or less like: "Even the longest path starts with the first step" ;)