A Family of Values

As representational artists, we want our subjects to make convincing impressions. To do this, we learn to establish relative sizes and create the illusion of space and mass, but when we add the skillful use of values, our work gains real vitality. Much advice has been given about the importance of careful attention to values and the benefit it brings to your drawings, but you can’t get too much of a good thing!

Values are easier to understand and much easier to use than many aspiring artists realize. Simply stated, value is the relative lightness or darkness of a mark or of a plane from a specific point of view. Many values combine to give your subject a certain look in a certain position and light. The better your awareness of these values and the better your ability to draw and paint them, the better your final result will be—all the more so when accurate values are coupled with your accurate rendering of mass, shape, texture and relative scale.

The Scale
A significant obstacle to seeing the values of objects is that vivid colors tend to be difficult to translate into comparable shades of black and white. If we could look at our subjects in their actual color and magically see shades of black and white, accurate rendering would be very simple. Drawing from plaster casts teaches students how to clearly see values, thereby enabling them to make accurate renditions of whatever they’re drawing. This method is a time-honored and essential part of traditional academic art teaching. Absent good plaster casts, working with quality black-and-white photographs is a good learning method.

One of the best tools for sharpening your value focus, however, is the value chart. A useful value chart is easy to make, traditionally being made up of 10 values from white to black. Here’s what I recommend: Start with a small piece of 5-ply or stronger illustration board or matboard that’s 2 or 3 inches wide and 10 inches long, and mark it into 10 segments. Use acrylic paint to make one end white and the other black, and then use mixtures of these colors to progressively fill the remaining spaces (see below). The measurement of each mixture and the total number of segments may be arbitrary, but this method should allow you to create a satisfactory range.

The Technique
This scale allows you to do a number of important things easily. With it, you can judge at a glance the full range of your subjects’ values. For example, after you mix a color you can find its value on the scale where its edge appears to blend with one of the segments. You can even use it to identify the values of a potential subject, whether it’s a reference photo or a real object. I’ve used two scales—the one described here and one created on a strip of clear plastic, which allows me to lay it directly over my work. (To help the paint adhere, paint the plastic first with acrylic medium mixed with a bit of ox gall.)

When painting, many artists premix their values, applying paint in a straight-from-the-tube thickness, but I generally prefer the thin, multilayer approach because as each layer dries I have the pleasure of watching the values develop. With enough drawing practice you may no longer need a value chart, and instead use thumbnail sketches to determine whether the finished drawing will be more effective in the low (dark) or high (light) value key.

The value range and pattern of your final drawings depends on your concept and your personal style, from simple line drawings with very few values to highly detailed realism with the entire gamut of values. But you’ll find you can draw almost anything with the standard 10-value system. It’s been the backbone of virtually every great example of representational art, including chiaroscuro, etchings, lithographs, and paintings or drawings of every medium. Take time to absorb the value system and the work you produce will be more valuable for it.

Merrill Mahaffey’s work can be found in many private, corporate and museum collections, including the Phoenix and Denver Art Museums, the Tucson Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Smithsonian American Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. He’s had numerous solo exhibitions of his work in various Western states and been featured in a variety of publications. He lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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