Do's and Don'ts for Painting Accurate Value Relationships

Painting accurate value relationships is an important milepost along your journey as an artist.

In realism, value and tones are the foundation that color and composition sit upon. When you keep a tight rein on your values, you will have far fewer struggles with colors, and even your sense of composition will improve.

In fact, keeping control over your tones makes it easier to explore colors and other elements.

Below are some tips to help you improve your ability to capture value relationships.

Keep both the positive (things to do) and negative (things not to do) mental habits in mind as you draw and paint.

With time, you will internalize what you learn here and see your drawings improve.

”Do's” to help you grasp tonal relationships:

  • Judge and compare values in relation to each other.
    A value is ALWAYS related to at least two other values in the painting. If you shift or modify one tone while painting all the values, the tones nearby also need to be considered.

  • Aim for a strong and simple tonal effect.
    Try to use just three broad tones—shadow, middle tones, and light tones—when you first start a painting. You can add more tones later on.

  • Select just the values necessary for creating the form. Refrain from painting all the values you see.

  • Squint a lot.
    Looking at your subject with eyes half closed. Doing so helps you reduce the values and details. Squinting helps you catch what is essential while you are painting values.

  • Go easy on the highlights. Highlights are less light than it might seem at first glance.

Avoid these ”Don'ts” to keep your values as accurate as possible:

  • Don't isolate one value and ignore its relationships to surrounding tones. A value, even perfectly depicted, can be out of balance with the rest of the tones in the painting.

  • Don't stare at any one place for too long. Look away. Squint. Give your eyes a break so you can see things fresh.

  • Don't put too many value levels on the canvas. If you use too many values, it weakens the structure of your painting. Generally 5 values are a good number of values you should strive.

  • Don't paint reflected light too light. If you do, your shadows will be distorted. Reflected light is actually darker than it might seem at first glance.

  • Don't get carried away with highlights while painting value.

    A common mistake is to use starchy white for highlights without toning it down because of the “stereotype” that highlights will be white (and grass is green and the sky is blue). Take the time to see the real color of what you are trying to paint.

  • Don't ignore how the light affects the form.

    Instead, think of the form as made of facets that reflect the light from different angles, and each facet will have a different color.

  • Don't jump into painting before taking the time to do a tonal study (or a thumbnail sketch) in black and white. It's a mistake to skip this step and think you can capture all the values perfectly on the first try.

So, have you found yourself doing any of the “Don'ts” as you paint? Try to stay aware of them while painting value relationships. Correct yourself as you go.

Keep the “Do's” in mind, too, and consciously cultivate them as habits. You will be glad you did when you see how they serve you and your paintings!

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