Values, who needs them?

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I remember it clearly. It was in a painting class at Art Center College in Pasadena, CA, that I was taught values. No, not moral values, but rather the kind we use in painting. Sometimes they’re referred to as “tone”, but most of us painters are more familiar with the term “value”.

Every color fits somewhere on the gray scale from white to black

Every color fits somewhere on a gray scale, from white to black

The colors shown on the gray scale above, photographed in black and white

The colors shown on the gray scale above, photographed in black and white.


The dramatic revelation for me was that painters basically have nine values to work with…white through black…and that every color fits somewhere within that range. In other words, every color has a value. You would think I would have been taught such an important principle during four years of art instruction in college, but ‘no’, it was never mentioned.

John Pototschnik - "Coastline Dwellings" - 20"x 20" - Oil (black and white reproduction)

John Pototschnik – “Coastline Dwellings” – 20″x 20″ – Oil


When learned and absorbed, that knowledge brought dramatic changes to my work. Even today, I maintain that the value structure within a painting is more important than color. It’s value that defines the quality of light; for example, on a bright sunny day, the values will cover a broader range and reveal more contrast. Conversely, in low light or on cloudy days, the opposite is true.

It’s value that defines the separation between light and shadow, and it’s the value of underlying abstract shapes in a painting that give it substance…that powerful visual effect. When the values are incorrect, out of place, or not clearly representing the desired mood, an inferior painting will be the result…guaranteed.

Daniel Ridgway Knight -  "Hailing the Ferry"

Daniel Ridgway Knight – “Hailing the Ferry”

Joaquin Sorrolla y Bastida - "Three Sails" - 38"x 54" - Oil - 1903

Joaquin Sorrolla y Bastida – “Three Sails” – 38″x 54″ – Oil – 1903

George Inness - "Hillside at Etretet" - Oil - 1876

George Inness – “Hillside at Etretet” – Oil – 1876


For sometime now, I have used a monochromatic block-in for many of my studio works…and most recently for some of the plein air work as well. With all concern about color eliminated, emphasis can be placed solely on drawing, composition, and establishment of the appropriate mood. It’s a good way to work. All great painters understand that the thoughtful organization of abstract value shapes are the foundation upon which every successful painting is built. First, they strive for simplicity…the elimination of detail and unnecessary values. One technique used is to squint. Richard Schmid says to squint only at the subject, not the painting.

Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin - "The Copper Drinking Fountain" - 11.22"x 9.06" - Oil - 1734

Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin – “The Copper Drinking Fountain” – 11.22″x 9.06″ – Oil – 1734


Squinting not only helps one simplify but also clarify value relationships. It is a good practice when painting to first establish the darkest dark and lightest light of the painting. After that it’s a matter of accurately relating each succeeding value to those two. Additionally, when drawing the abstract value shapes, it’s important to create variety…variety of shape size, and distribution of values; in other words, avoid an equal amount of light, middle, and dark tones. A dominant shape and value is always preferred. This can be achieved in at least three ways: 1) Crop the subject in different ways until variety is achieved. 2) Redraw while emphasizing some shapes and values over others. 3) Reduce or increase some values in the subject in order to create the desired contrast and importance.

I’ve been privileged to teach many painting workshops over the years. One commonality among all students is that they love color but they do not consider the value of each color. As a result their paintings end up basically gray in value and inharmonious in color. Instructing them to create a monochromatic painting always takes them out of their comfort zone, while also challenging them to answer the question…”How do you expect to create a good painting in color if you can’t even do it in black and white?”

Il'ya Repin - "Portrait of the Composer Modest Musorgsky" - Oil - 1881

Il’ya Repin – “Portrait of the Composer Modest Musorgsky” – Oil – 1881

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot - "The Roman Countryside" - Oil - 1830

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot – “The Roman Countryside” – Oil – 1830

Jehan Georges Vibert - "The Fortune Teller" - 27"x 40" - Oil

Jehan Georges Vibert – “The Fortune Teller” – 27″x 40″ – Oil


I prefer clarity, in painting that means values that are accurately placed, correct for the subject, and for the intended mood. A great way to see if your paintings will hold up under the scrutinizing eye of the “value inspector” is to photograph them in black and white. Weaknesses will be very evident. All the paintings above have had the color removed…clearly illustrating, in a positive way, an outstanding value structure.


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