Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. In this lesson you will isolate value from color and deal only with black, white and the range of grays between them. This is called achromatic, without chroma (the amount of color or brightness).

The objectives of this lesson are to:

Learn the basic skills of painting.

Learn to distinguish subtle differences in value.

Make an eleven step value scale.



The ability to control the value structure of an image is one of the most important things a designer needs to learn.

Go to Using Value.



Value is one of the most important and least understood concepts in design. The strongest contrast available in art is black to white. Strong contrast is useful for controlling attention. Colors can contrast but hue and saturation differences are weaker than value contrasts.

With or without color the designer must be aware of the value structure of a composition. The visibility, and hence the readability, of an image depends mostly on the careful use of values.

Most paintings are readable in a black and white photograph. Only a few artists are such subtle colorist that their work looks flat without color.

Leonardo de Vinci's "Mona Lisa", like most paintings, is structured on value and decorated with color.

About 30 different grays will be needed to make an effective 11 step value scale.

You will start with the simplest painting technique -- getting the paint out of the jar (or tube) and onto the painting's surface (called the ground) in a flat, even coat. You will paint small swatches (paint chips) of black, white and several different grays.
A palette is a place where paints are mixed. There are a lot of different materials that can be used for this. Commercial palettes are available in metal, plastic, wood and (disposable) paper. Perhaps the best is also one of the least expensive: a plastic or coated paper plate. Frozen dinner trays also work well.


The paint needs to be thinned to the proper painting consistency. Acrylic and other opaque water based paints are thinned with water. The proper viscosity depends on the painting technique to be used. For our project the paint should be thin enough to flow from the brush but thick enough to "cover" the surface without streaks. That is the consistency of thick cream (will not drip off the brush).

Jar colors need only a slight adjustment. Tube colors are made thicker to paint "impasto" like oil paints and require more thinning. The thinning is done on a palette (a flat nonabsorbent surface -- preferably white and with a rim).

Put a small amount of the paint on the palette. Start with black because it is the easiest color to use. Always wet your brush before you start painting (it makes the brush easier to clean). Stir the paint with the wet brush, adding water a little at a time until you have the right consistency. The paint should be evenly mixed (all one value).


First brush across....

then smooth going lengthwise.

Although the painting technique used on this project is basic it is not simple. Care must be taken to get the paint layer as even as possible.



You will need finished "paint chips" one inch by two inches so paint an area about two inches by three inches to insure you have an even coat over the required chip area.

Start by putting down a first coat of overlapping strokes across the chip area. Add more paint as you go if needed to cover the area evenly.

Smooth the chip by lightly painting the length of the still wet area to even the paint layer. Finish by holding the brush nearly vertical for "tipping off" strokes.

If you have done a good job the dried chip will be an even value (streak free). Black will require a second coat to reach it's darkest value. The other values should only need one painting if you use enough paint to cover. The lightest chips are the most likely to streak.

Add a small dab of white paint to the puddle of black paint on your palette and mix the new value thoroughly (or you will get streaks). Add more paint as needed throughout the process. Paint a new chip with this paint mixture and repeat the process, adding a little more white each time, until you have a series of chips from black through dark grays to light values.

Notice that the paint changes value as it dries, getting darker. The more water and white paint in the mix, the greater the change.




With acrylic paint it is important that paint never dries on the brush or your clothing.




When finished with one color and before starting to paint with white you will need to clean the brush. Clean the brush by first wiping any paint off of it with a rag and then swishing it vigorously in clean water. At the sink, rub the brush in a large circle against your palm under running water to clean the hairs thoroughly back to the ferrule (the metal tube that holds the hairs on the brush). A mild soap should be used for the last cleaning.

Some colors will stain the brush hairs but try to wash ALL of the color out of the brush each time you use it. If you do the brush will last a long time. If you are careless, the brush will soon be useless.

When you are finished for the day make sure the wet brush is put away shaped like you want it to look the next time you paint.


Go through the same painting procedure starting with white paint. After you get a good white, make a series of chips adding a little black each time. Fill in any value gaps in your series. You will need about thirty different value chips to get the nine even steps between black and white. With fewer chips you will probably have too many large value jumps.


11 Step Value Scale*

Make a value scale choosing eleven values that are as evenly spaced as possible. This number gives a ten point scale with black as zero and white as ten. Each chip will be one inch high and two inches wide. They will be stacked vertically with white at the top to make a column two inches wide and eleven inches tall. A border of a middle value color will allow all of the values to be seen clearly.


Cut the chips apart with a knife using a ruler so they have one good straight edge.

Between the black and white chips place nine values going from dark to light. A good strategy is to choose a middle value chip that appears to be half way in value between white and black (has equal contrast to the black and white chips).

Then choose four light and four dark valued chips to complete the nine steps between black and white.

Cut this edge straight.

Cutting and painting help

When you stack the chips and the clean edge will allow you to see how the values relate to each other. Put them so that they overlap on the cut edge. Substitute values until you have as even a transition from one chip to the next as possible. While you are doing this you will increase your sensitivity to the subtle differences in value.

Look for big jumps and/or values that are almost the same. Change these chips first. Use only chips that are streak free. Try to keep the same sized value step from one end of the scale to the other. You may trade with other class members who have used the same black paint on the same paper.

When you have a good scale no value transition will stand out more than the rest. "Fluting" will occur if the steps are even enough -- each chip will appear to be darker at the top and lighter at the bottom.

Fluting is so named because a color area seems to change value (and/or color) across it's width because each edge is influenced by the value (color) next to it. It looks concave like a fluted column. You should be able to see fluting in the chips of the example to the left.

*NOTE: It is impossible to represent values and/or colors accurately on the Internet because every system will interpret the information differently.



Measure and cut carefully. On an image this simple every flaw shows.


When you have chosen the eleven chips that you will use, number them on the back. Use a ruler and knife to cut each chip one inch high (but more than two inches wide). Glue these to a strip of thin paper so that they are in the correct sequence and each cut edge is snugly against the next chip. You should have an eleven inch column that is more than two inches wide.

Now cut the column on both sides to be two inches wide. Everything should be aligned and even. If you cut the chips before assembly the edges will be uneven.



Learning to read the value of a color is an important skill, needed to use colors well.


It is necessary to put a border on the scale or the white chip will not show against the white book page. Choose a color that is a middle value (try red, blue or green). Try for an exact value match with the center chip of your value scale. When you put the color against the value scale the color should show the least contrast with the center chip. This is tricky because a bright color will often appear lighter than it really is.

The width of the border should complement the value scale (not compete with it).


The finished project will be displayed in your book vertically with white at the top. This is the format used in the Munsell color system

Value scales are helpful aides to assist in judging values. Any color's value can be determined by comparing it to the scale, like you did with the border's color.

© 2006 James T. Saw
Do not copy or reuse these materials without permission.