Skip to content

Drawing a Value Study

Step 6 in the Drawing Process in Art: Why drawing a value study is important, how to create one, and color value explained

Many beginning artists ask Why bother drawing a value study? A thorough understanding of what value is, and what it does, answers this question.

What is Value in a Drawing?

Value is how light or dark a color is. These varying levels of color are called tints and shades. How to Choose a Color Scheme for a Drawing discusses tints and shades of colors in greater detail. Black, white, and gray are also colors. Below is a grayscale value chart. Black is the darkest value on the left, white is the lightest value on the right, and in between are varying shades of gray.

Drawing a value study with a grayscale chart
Gray scale value chart example

Why Spend Time Drawing a Value Study?

Paper is a flat, two dimensional surface. We need a technique to give the appearance of three dimensional depth. The lights and darks in a drawing, aka values, create this optical illusion. Value gives objects their form. Without values and contrasts, a drawing looks flat and uninteresting.

Knowing what values exist in a scene, and where they go, is an integral part of the drawing process ensuring agreement between real life values and values rendered on paper. Establishing these values beforehand makes drawing easier and faster.

A Quick Way to Draw a Value Study

Before starting the final drawing, grab some sketch paper and a pencil. If you’re drawing from a color photo, convert the photo to monochrome using image editing software. When drawing from life, take a photo of the scene and then convert the photo to monochrome. This photo is your value reference. A free and easy to use online image editor is Pixlr.

Using this monochrome image, shade in the lightest and darkest values on your sketch paper. Then shade in a few mid-tones. Sketch your values quickly, as simple as possible, with just enough detail to outline the major forms. With the highlight, mid tone, and shadow areas located, it’s now easy to transfer these values to the final drawing.

Here are the steps I used to create this landscape scene using colored pencils. (From photo to final drawing, I selectively added and removed some elements for aesthetics.)

how to draw a value study example
1: Take the photo
how to draw a value study example
2: Convert to monochrome
how to draw a value study example
3: Draw the value study
how to draw a value study example
4: Final drawing

top of page

How to Avoid Color Value Confusion

Picture this scenario. You create a beautiful pencil drawing of a landscape. Now, you draw this same landscape in color. When you finish your color drawing, something looks wrong. The color version of your landscape isn’t as beautiful as your pencil drawing. There’s no pop to your art, and it looks flat and boring. Why? 

The reason is because the drawing lacks color value. Remember that value produces contrast, and it’s contrast that creates the appearance of depth between visual elements. When colors in a drawing all close to one another in value, it’s hard to perceive three dimensional depth.

Why Color Value Confuses Beginning Artists

When drawing with graphite pencil or charcoal, contrasts between light and dark values are easy to notice because we’re looking at shades of gray. However, it’s harder to perceive different values of color. For example, looking yellow and blue side by side, we might think that yellow is a lighter value than blue. Actually, they are the same value. This misconception occurs when we look at colors as simply color, not as value.

How to See Color as Value

A color value is how light or dark that color is relative to its medium hue. Below is a value scale for yellow. A medium value of yellow resides in the center of its value scale. Adding white, the color proceeds to lighter values, ie ‘pale yellows’, reaching white on the far right. Conversely, adding black, the yellow progressively darkens to darker values, ie ‘dark yellows’, till it reaches absolute black on the left. 

how to draw a value study using a yellow value scale
Yellow value scale

Next, let’s look at the yellow and gray value scales together. Each shade of yellow corresponds to a shade of gray. The medium yellow resides at the center of the gray scale.

yellow value scale
gray value scale

Below are yellow and blue value scales, with medium yellow and blue situated in the center. Comparing these, the medium yellow color is not lighter than the blue. They are identical in value. Although the hues are different, the value of each color in a column is the same:

yellow value scale
blue value scale

top of page

What is High and Low Key Value in an Artwork?

Sometimes an artist uses a narrow range of values to convey a particular mood. The term ‘high key’ means an artwork’s range of values proceeds from the center of the value scale to white. ‘Low key’ artwork is where the values go from the middle of the value scale to black. Below are examples of both high and low key art from two great masters.

Monet, in his painting Waterloo Bridge, uses high key values to recreate morning light over the bridge and water. It’s almost if our eyes are blinded by the intense light, washing out any detail in the scene. In contrast, Sorolla’s painting utilizes high key values to depict a feeling of tenderness. Note the subtle contrast between the bed linens and the heads of mother and child.

Art in high key value. Waterloo Bridge by Claude Monet
Art in high key value. Waterloo Bridge by Claude Monet, 1903,
French, Public Domain
High key value artwork. Mother by Joaquin Sorolla
High key value artwork. Mother by Joaquin Sorolla, 1895,
Spanish, Public Domain

Dark values dominate Monet’s forest scene on the left. Although the sky and foreground appear lighter than the trees, their values are in the middle of the value scale. The values in Sorolla’s painting of fishermen hauling in the boat, proceed from the middle of the value scale (the background cliffs) to the dark foreground.

Low key value example. The Pave de Chailly in the Fontainbleau Forest 
by Monet
Low key value example. The Pave de Chailly in the Fontainbleau Forest
by Monet, 1865, French, Public Domain
Art with low key value. End of the Day by Joaquin Sorolla, 1900,
Spanish, Public Domain

top of page

Guidelines Using Value in Drawing:

Render a grayscale value study before commencing the final drawing. This ensures accurate transfer of the lights and darks in the subject to those on paper. Remember that different colors may have the same value.

Below is a value chart to help you see color as value. In the top row are shades and tints of gray, ie, the grayscale values. The colors of tints and shades under each gray swatch all have the same value.

Color value chart with grayscale values at the top.
Color value chart with grayscale values at the top.

Back to Step 5: Choosing the paper