Back to Value


To be successful as a designer it is necessary to be able to use value effectively. Value provides the maximum contrast available and is useful for controlling visibility and hence controlling attention.

The objectives of this lesson are to

Show how value contrasts control visibility.

Demonstrate the relationship between the range of values available in the real world and the values available to the designer.

Show how artists cope with the difference in the above.



More about controlling attention in Emphasis.



The strongest contrast available in art is the contrast between black and white. This may be partially accounted for by the mechanics of vision. The rods and cones of the eye both respond to value but only the cones respond to color (hue). The area in a composition with the greatest contrast, with or without color, will be the most visible.

Look at the examples below and ask yourself which bars stand out the strongest against their surroundings.


Notice in all cases the most visible areas are where the value contrasts are highest.

The middle value bright red bar is very visible and has adequate value contrast to both black and white. That is why that color is used so often in graphics.


The first, (dark) bar is clearly visible against the white background but barely visible against the black. The second, (light) bar 's contrasts are the opposite. The third (gray) bar is equally visible against both black and white but not as visible as the high contrast areas of the first two bars. The fourth (black to white) bar has maximum contrast at either end.

The colored bars add hue and saturation as considerations. The two red bars are middle values and contrast equally with black and white. The brightness of the red, however, makes it more visible.

The violet bar corresponds to the first dark gray bar in contrasts -- high against white but low against black. The two yellow bars correspond with the second light gray bar in contrasts. The brighter yellow does make that bar more visible even against the white -- but that contrast is still low and can not be depended on to be very noticeable. Against the black, though it has both strong value contrast and strong color appeal.


The examples to the right are against red and green middle value backgrounds. Red and green are (traditionally) complementary colors so have maximum hue contrast.

Compare how hue contrast relates to the value contrast.


Both the black and white bars have equal contrast against the bright middle value colors. The middle value gray bar, however has little contrast and while visible is not very noticeable.

The red bar is quite visible against the green but disappears against the red background. The light and dark red bars are easily visible against both backgrounds.

The green bars have the same contrast relationships -- visible against the different hue but more visible against both backgrounds when there is also a value difference.

It is easy to over estimate the visibility of same or similar value colors. When the shapes are simple and large, like the bars the red on green and green on red contrast seems adequate. When the images are more complex and demanding the situation changes somewhat.


Notice that you can see the red "are each" easily because of hue contrast but all of other words are easier to read because of greater value contrasts.




There are differences between how we see values in our experience and how the artist depicts those apparent values. In our world the lightest thing we are likely to experience is the sun -- too bright to look at. The darkest would be a complete lack of light, like in a cave.

These extremes are much farther apart than the poles of value available to an artist -- white and black pigment.

To reconcile these differences requires that the designer either use one end of the value dynamic or compress the real world's value extremes into the tonal range between white and black pigment.

Photographers must decide how to adjust their cameras in order to expose subjects with extreme value differences. The exposure can be set to reproduce the light areas but will "under expose" the shadows and dark areas will be uniformly black.

If the camera is set to record the darks, the lights will be "over exposed" and all show as white

In other words the photographer takes the desired part of the range of values in the subject and depicts them with the range of values available.

Different filters, films and exposures will allow most scenes to be properly exposed but the photographer must know how to handle the range of values in an image.

The painter does not have to be limited by the mechanics of exposure and can compress the subject's dynamic range to fit the limits of using pigment. The effect will be to flatten the image some but the flexibility of the concept allows all value relationships to be depicted.

Understanding how to take advantage of the available values is one of the keys to being an effective visual artist.

There are two major considerations when using value: the amount of contrast and the tonal range of values used. The first controls visibility, the second mood and ambiance.



More about contrast in Emphasis.

The visibility, and hence the noticeability, of an item depends largely on how much contrast it makes with it's surroundings. Black and white are the extremes of value, the most different items can be from each other. When that extreme is used the contrast makes the item the most visible. When the contrast is lessened, the visibility is reduced so that minimum contrast produced minimum visibility


  Ambiance (also spelled ambience) means: that which surrounds or encompasses -- the mood, character or atmosphere of an image.    
Skillful use of this concept allows the designer to control visibility and with that attention and emphasis.

The range of values from black to white is the tonal range available to an artist. The ability to use that range effectively lets the designer determine the mood of an image and create and control ambiance.

The photographer Ansel Adams is a master at using tone effectively. He says that a photographer should make a picture, not just take a picture. He visualizes what he wants the image to look like -- what he wants to communicate -- before he makes the picture. Then he sets up his equipment to get the image he wants.


A histogram (profile showing the distribution of values) of "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" indicates how Ansel Adams used tone to control ambiance.

black to white values


In his picture "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" he sets the time as night and the mood as mysterious by using a dark palette and a large expanse of black sky.


The histogram of this image shows that the value structure emphasizes the light end of the tonal range. This gives the photograph a different ambiance than the moonrise picture.

black to white values


Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico © Ansel Adams

In his picture "Snow Hummocks, Yosemite National Park, California," he uses tone to evoke an entirely different mood and time.


Snow Hummocks, Yosemite National Park, California © Ansel Adams

In both of these photographs Ansel Adams uses the complete tonal range at his disposal. His images always include deep, rich blacks. He usually uses the full range to white, even in a dark image, unless he is trying to indicate a misty day.

The effect of black areas in an image that includes whites gives the feeling that the blacks are "blacker" than if most of the image were black and no areas were very light. The reason is that the tonal range of the image provides the necessary contrast that allows you to see what the artist wants you to see.

The same is true of the whites. When less than the entire tonal range is used the image can look "flat" and it is harder to generate interest.

Similarly, a predominantly light image will seem "lighter" and more positive than a predominantly dark image. The tonal range helps set the mood.


The first step in using value effectively (or any other concept taught in this class) is to see how others have used the concept. Notice how the value structure is used in the artwork that you admire -- be that a Rembrandt masterpiece or a comic book. The concepts of design apply in all of the arts. Learn as much as you can from those you admire.

The next step is to pay particular attention to what happens in your own artwork when you experiment with different value relationships. And do experiment. Art is one of the few places where you can afford to take chances. In fact there is a premium on the unexpected -- but only if it works. Learn as much as you can from your successes, and more importantly, from your failures.


Back to Value

© 2002 James T. Saw
Do not copy or reuse these materials without permission.