For Bold Color, Learn to Judge Values

Color! Dazzling, delicious, seductive color! We artists do love color, don’t we? And yet, using brilliant color successfully can be quite tricky.

Here’s the most important thing to remember: While color may be one of your highest priorities for eliciting an emotional response, when compared to shape and value, color is the least important element of the three. The truth is that if you get shape and value right, you can use almost any color scheme you please.

How to use color in art

Once you isolate a color and compare it to the flat white of a hole-punched index card, you’ll immediately see the true light, medium or dark value—and the accurate color as well.

Methods for Judging Color Value

Learning how to judge value—the lightness or darkness of a color—isn’t always easy.

  • A simple, helpful tool is a white or gray card with a hole punched into it. I use a white index card. Viewing a sample area through the hole in the card isolates that area from the many, many values, colors and other elements in a photo or painting—or even on your palette—that distract your eyes from seeing the true value or color.
  • Squinting your eyes also helps you to see value rather than color.
  • Another helpful tool is a piece of red acetate. If you look at a subject through red acetate, you’ll see value only, not color.

Training your brain to think and see in terms of value takes a bit of practice, but the skill is terribly important to your craft. When you’re determining value, remember that you’re not necessarily assessing the “correct” color in order to reproduce it slavishly. Rather, you’re trying to understand the truth of the subject (at least as defined by your camera and printer, as in the case of a photo reference) before making changes to fit your own artistic vision.

Make Your Colors Zing!
If you get the values correct, you can use a wild color scheme and still produce a realistic-looking painting. I pushed the color in the little study below (A) farther than I usually do in order to make the point. Compare it to the reference photo (B). The black-and-white version (C) shows that the values are consistent in all three images below.

How to use color in art

techniques for color in art

Using color values in art

Criteria for Switching Colors
To achieve brilliant yet believable color, it’s not enough to look at a rock, for instance, and say, “Well, I think I want this rock to be turquoise.” If you want to learn to paint with brilliant, creative color, I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions when trying to decide which colors to use:

  1. Is the area in question predominantly warm or cool?
  2. What is the accurate value of the area in question, and should I reproduce that value or make it lighter or, possibly, darker?

Once these two important questions have been answered, you’ve narrowed and simplified your choices, which makes the color decisions much easier.

Take advantage of the Julie Gilbert Pollard Unleashed Ultimate Collection, which includes the following:
• Acrylic Unleashed: Painting a Colorful Landscape (DVD) and Painting a Snowy Landscape (DVD)
• Watercolor Unleashed:</b> Painting White Flowers with (DVD); Reflections in Water (PDF); and Watercolor Unleashed (eBook)

Take a peek at The Artist’s Magazine‘s May 2010 issue’s table of contents and get the digital download.

Julie Gilbert Pollard, author of Brilliant Color (North Light Books, © 2008) and Watercolor Unleashed! (self-published), teaches oil and watercolor in the greater Phoenix area—including at Scottsdale Artists’ School—and workshops farther afield. More of her work, plus workshop information, can be found at This article is an excerpt from Brilliant Color and is used with permission of North Light Books, an imprint of F+W Media Inc.


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