Tips for creating good values

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It’s always really satisfying to receive an award that is juried by one’s peers. The National Oil and Acrylic Painters Society recently announced its award winners for the “Best of America Small Works 2023” National Juried Exhibition. hosted by Mary Williams Fine Art Gallery in Boulder, Colorado. The show runs through 17 June 2023.

“A Cherished Moment” won the “Best Use of Values” Award. (Click images to enlarge)

“A Cherished Moment” – 12″ x 24″ – Oil


For those unfamiliar with the meaning of the word “Values” in the world of painting, let me explain. Value refers to gradations on a gray scale from white to black. In nature the number of gradations would be extensive. I like to use a nine-step scale because #5 then is the middle value between white and black, and nine distinct values are plenty for the painter. More commonly, a 10-step scale is used, but to me, that makes the middle value more difficult to find. (Note: On the scale below, just imagine one more block on the left, that will be the white one.

Color has three distinct qualities: 1) The color’s name (red, blue, green, etc). 2) Intensity/chroma (brightness/richness of a color). 3) Value (the lightness or darkness of a color). EVERY color falls somewhere on the gray scale. On the chart below, I mixed various colors and found their appropriate place on a gray scale. It can be difficult to do this, so I recommend squinting; this helps in discerning where each color fits. Using Photoshop, I removed all the color in order to see how close I came. Squint your eyes to see if the values ring true. It can certainly be tricky in figuring this out because the brightness of a color can confuse us, making us believe it is actually lighter than it is.


A very important truth…if you are unable to create a clear, well conceived painting in black and white, the likelihood of creating one in color is slim; I strongly recommend building your ability to master values by creating black and white paintings. Below is “A Cherished Moment” with all the color removed.



It’s the value structure of a painting that creates the mood of a painting, not color; color only enhances the established mood.


Here are some final thoughts about values: 1) Don’t make all the values the same. 2) I find many students are afraid to use dark darks or light lights, as a result many paintings end up looking gray with little contrast. 3) Establish an unequal proportion of values. In the painting above, the lightest lights take up the smallest area; next, the darkest darks, while the grasses command the largest value area. 4) Make each value shape unique and different in size to all others.

Thank you to each of the jurors of this show: Denise Antaya, Tim Breaux, and Cynthia Feustel. One of the jurors, Tim Breaux stands near my painting.


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