The importance of accurate values

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What is more important, value or color? That debate surely has been going on since the 1800’s, and probably even before that.

For me, it’s a hands-down, no contest argument. Accurate value totally outweighs the importance of color. What do I mean by accurate values, for all paintings have a range of values? First of all when we speak of painting values, we are speaking of the degree of lightness or darkness of a color. Every color falls somewhere on a gray scale from white to black. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

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This gray scale shows the one above, but with all the color removed.


Until an art student grasps and masters that concept, their art is going nowhere.

Once a mark is made on canvas, a value and a degree of contrast has been established…whether that mark is made with a pencil, a stick of charcoal, or a brush loaded with paint. But just establishing a value is of little worth if it is not the correct or accurate value. What do I mean by that?

Everything we observe, as I said earlier, has a value and falls somewhere on a scale from white to black. Since I’m primarily a landscape painter, I will speak to that, but the principle applies regardless of the chosen subject.

Nature and all of its varied moods is a wonderful and marvelous thing, and all those varied moods: bright sunlight, fog, rain, snow, mist, haze, smoke, clouds, sunrises, sunsets, midday, twilight, night time, spring, summer, fall, and winter, all demand a unique group of values. If the values established on our canvas do not accurately represent the mood we’re desiring to create, then we’ve failed.

What young artists often fail to realize is that it’s the value that determines mood, not color. Color is important, but it merely enhances the mood, it does not create it. This truth can be easily demonstrated by observing black and white photos of the landscape. One can pretty easily determine the mood, and in some cases, the approximate time of day.

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Phil Starke - "Desert Garden" 11"x 14" - Oil

Phil Starke – “Desert Garden” 11″x 14″ – Oil

Color removed.

Color removed.


In Phil Starke’s painting above, we see the same truth demonstrated in his painting. There is a clarity in his work and a clear distinction of values as the trees recede into the distance. Notice how he created the lightest light at the focal point, strengthened even more so, by the surrounding dark values, including the darkest darks  found in the windows and in the large tree.

It’s value that creates the form…a sense of the three-dimensional. Combined with hard and soft edges, and the correct values, a real sense of depth can be created. Understanding value is foundational to good painting. I like to tell my students that accurate values in a painting are analogous to putting up the walls in a house that’s under construction. The walls give volume/form to each room.

The importance of understanding and using a variety of edges cannot be overemphasized. These can dramatically influence the type of mood one wishes to create as well.  So give them great thought and don’t neglect their consideration.

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"Monterey Bay" - 20"x 20" - Oil

“Monterey Bay” – 20″x 20″ – Oil


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"New England Morning" - 16"x 24" - Oil

“New England Morning” – 16″x 24″ – Oil


Many of the paintings created for my solo show, hanging through the month of June at Southwest Gallery in Dallas, were first established monochromatically…again stressing the importance placed on achieving an accurate value structure. This is where the mood of the painting was established. Once that was set, an appropriate palette of colors was chosen, mixed, and applied to support the already established mood. This technique has really helped my work.

...And this is how it all comes together as color  begins to be added. "Montecatini" (The Artist's Process) - 30"x 24" - Oil

…And this is how it all comes together as color begins to be added.
“Montecatini” (The Artist’s Process) – 30″x 24″ – Oil


Now you know why I believe accurate values are always more important to the success of a painting than color will ever be.


To see my first major solo show, the complete works, click HERE

To view more of Phil Starke”s work, go HERE

John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE



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