How Many Values Do We Really Need?

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I told you yesterday that I’d be writing more about value, so here I am, ready to share a bit of what I’ve been learning on the subject. This is not, of course, the first time I’ve written about value in art, and it definitely won’t be the last. Value is a crucial element in art, whether we’re drawing or painting, whether we’re creating still lifes, portraits, landscapes, or even abstract art.

What is value?

I’m borrowing this definition:

Value is the relative lightness or darkness of a color. – Carolyn Lewis

I have purchased — and made — many value scales over the last few years. Learning to use values properly is an essential skill in art. As part of my graphite drawing lessons, I was required to make a value scale. When I began working with charcoal, I was instructed to create a value scale. I learned pen and ink drawing and once again found the suggestion to create a value scale. Again for acrylics. Again for watercolor. Again for oils. No matter what the medium, the principles of value remain.

But, here’s a question for you. How many values do we really need? I ask this because we can buy value scales with as few as five steps — gradations — or as many as twelve. Most value scales feature ten steps, but many art teachers think it’s more helpful to use a 9-step scale since we can identify a precise middle value.

Carolyn Lewis — my current teacher through my 100-day creative journey — votes in favor of the ten-step scale. In her words, “a value scale of about ten steps represents what we actually see..”

Now, while we might think we should “paint what we see,” that’s not completely true where values are concerned. Lewis goes on to say “using too many values makes a painting busy,” and explains that “the eye doesn’t know what to focus on.”

This is important! Our intention, remember, is to catch the viewer’s eye and carefully guide the eyes through our art.

So, 10 values… too many. Even the much-touted 9 value scale is a bit too much. So, how many values do we really want?

A good choice, according to many of the online sites I’ve browsed, is to work with five values.

This is a method I’ve used in the past with drawing. You’ll find a post here on the topic of “Five Tone Shading” along with a bit of the how-to materials I used. When we’re working with graphite, we can easily adjust the tone by changing to a softer or harder pencil, depending upon whether we want to go darker or lighter.

In painting, it’s not quite so easy. Painting requires creating values through mixing. We add white to lighten a hue; we use black to darken a hue. And while a five-step value scale does simplify things a lot, we can make it simpler still by looking first at only three values:

  • Light
  • Middle
  • Dark

You’ll notice that I’m not referring to these as black, gray, and white. That would be a bit too simple, and we live in a world of color. We usually paint with colors, too. This is where it can get tricky, indeed, because we have to train our eyes to see the value differences from one color to the next.

Making an initial value sketch before we begin a painting helps us understand where we need to place those darks, those lights, and all those middle tones. I like to look first to the darkest areas in my scene and note them. Next, I turn to the lightest values I see and indicate where they are. I then see everything else as essentially “middle value”, although, of course, there might be slight variations here and there.

The 3-step value process — light, middle, dark — is a convenient starting point. From there we can add subtle value changes as necessary.

Instead of making an initial value sketch with three tones, some artists prefer to do notan studies. It was only last November when I first learned of notan and how such studies help us create proper values. Going forward with my 100-day challenge, I will be making preliminary studies for each painting I do. Some will be 3-step studies, and others will be notan studies.

As I teach myself the elements of art, I often draw on resources for elementary school — and even primary school — students. Not only do I learn from following these lessons, I can then share them with our young grand-children.

Here’s one cute teaching resource for values. It is from The Elements of Art Workbook. While the book is not currently available, this little mouse might give you inspiration for creating fun little “value studies” of your own.

Allow me, too, to introduce you to “Just An Everyday Art Teacher” — a blog I love! Follow the link and you’ll find the “Value Cactus”, another fun way to practice on values. While you’re there, by the way, be sure to check out the “Value Song” from Scratch Garden.

The worst part of making value scales — in my opinion — is that they’re a bit on the boring side. This is why cute mice and clever cacti are great resources. If you want to get a bit more adventurous, you can try out these 4 Engaging Alternatives to Value Scales from The Art of Education.

So, maybe we want to begin with two values and simple notan studies. Maybe using 3 basic values is a good starting point. Or maybe you find it easy to work with a 4-step or 5-step scale. Maybe you’re a believer in the 9-value scale, or maybe you like exploring the full range of 10 or 12 or… well, how many values are there?

The question, really, is irrelevant. The truth is this:

When it comes to values, the fewer the better

When we speak of having “a full range of values” within a drawing or painting, what we really mean is that we need the extremes at opposite ends of the value scale. We need the contrast between the lightest lights and the darkest darks. In other words, don’t over-complicate your value studies. Keep them simple and your drawings and paintings will be better for it.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! Yes, indeed. Maybe “the fewer the better” isn’t always true, and maybe we should look at our “full range of values” in relative terms. I’m learning a lot more about values now, so be watching for more information to follow!






  1. Hey
    Great post and I learned a lot
    – when infoagut art
    Younger students learned to three / light to dark to grasp the concept
    And advance lessons (usually upper level out of what I taught for sketch and with more niche teachers in that area) had students make the 10!

    I agree it can be busy with too many yet sometimes that might be what someone wants

    I think there is a different with sketching and painting -when it comes to value and how we approach it

    Lastly – with paint- we actually hardly ever use black (you might but many don’t) to darken a color – we use complements (red- green, blue and orange – purple yellow) because black can make muddy orbs too heavy

    Thanks again for this awesome post – enjoyed reading it and like how you shared teacher snippets – ideas and your experience as an artist – so good

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for the comments. Right now I have been using ivory black on my palette — mostly for convenience. I’m doing lots of “quick studies” to focus on different color theories and elements of art. Having the black in a tube is handy. If/when I’m painting a more finished piece, I usually make a chromatic black with burnt sienna and ultramarine blue. I’m still studying values, and I know there are artists who feel even the slightest gradation in tone should be captured. There will be more posts coming up on the topic of value. I’ve done studies recently on “high-key” and “low-key” values, and studies on light temperature and the warmth/coolness of lights and shadows. It’s been quite a learning experience. For now with landscape oil painting, I like the idea of working with 3, 4, or 5 different values, even to give a fully dimensional sense to the painting, but not so many that I’m going crazy with it all. Please feel free to share any ideas or suggestions!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m constantly referring back to the images painted by Diego Velazquez who utilized a surprisingly limited number of values to create the most phenomenal art work. A close-up view shows how everything comes together yielding remarkable results which have been admired for centuries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, indeed. His art is phenomenal. I have several artist friends who include him in their list of all-time favorites. I believe it’s good to limit our values, but recently I’ve been taking a course (online) with an artist who goes to the opposite extreme and tries to create even the slightest variations in value. Plus I’ve been reading about “relative” values and looking at painting that use only the “high” end or the “low” end of the value scale. There are so many different ways to approach value! Every time I think I’ve learned something, I come across something totally different. In some respects, I guess it comes down to trial and error (which I’m doing a lot of right now) and figuring out what we like and how we want to work with values. At the moment, I’m opting for a simple approach — lightest, darkest, and whatever is in the middle!


    1. I think I’ll agree with you on that. I’m doing an online course where the artist/instuctor is using a LOT of values — but the project is a still life, and that’s a lot different than landscape painting. I can see using more values for a still life where you have clearly defined lights, highlights, shadows, reflections, mid-tones… et al. For my landscape painting, however, I think seeing color/value “masses” and limiting the values is more practical. I’m learning a lot, though, so my opinions are always subject to change. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

I'd Love to Hear Your Thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s