Five Tips for Value Sketches

Five Tips for Basic Value Sketches
by Bill Teitsworth

Use these tips to develop your “artist’s eye” and make the most of your value sketches. Get more value sketch advice from the Drawing Board column in the June 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

  1. Limit your picture-space. Don’t skip this step. If you try to use the edges of your page—or worse, let your drawing fade out at the edges—you risk missing one of the essential points: to divide your picture-space into specific, well-defined shapes. Having your shapes meet the border firmly, or allowing them to be cropped by it, locks in the shapes of your drawing and gives it strength.
  2. Simplify. For example, your subject may include a distant hillside with leafless woods, some dark evergreens and a light field of grass or snow. Instead of trying to show all those value changes and details, remember the first step in the basic procedure, and just decide if the hillside piece contains any white areas important enough to be saved in the first step. If not, the whole thing gets covered with that first pass of midtone while the pine trees may become part of the dark pattern.
  3. Scale your values boldly. Artists have found it useful for many years to think of values in three broad groups—lights, midtones and darks. In the simplest form, this is white (the untouched paper), a dark as near to black as you can make with your drawing tool, and a middle gray halfway between the two. If you make a practice of being decisive about the value of a given shape and state that value decisively, your work will be immensely improved in clarity and expressive power.
  4. Be decisive about the shapes of your value areas. A shape is defined as an area set off from surrounding areas by line, value or color. In your sketches you’ll use lines to lay out the shapes but, from that point on, you’ll use value only. Try to be as clear as you can about where your shapes begin and end, and about which value group they belong to.
  5. Don’t be afraid to alter values. After your initial sketch, experiment in further quick sketches to see if the arrangement of lights and darks might be improved. For example, you might push down one or more of the light pieces into the midtone range. As you’ll see, this step focuses attention on the remaining lights. Or try combining several lights into one larger, more interesting shape. In other words, take the pressure off yourself, and give yourself permission to take risks.


Bill Teitsworth is a workshop instructor and signature member of the National Watercolor Society and the 2006 winner of the Milford and Patricia Zornes Award. See his website at

This article appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, which is available for order as a digital download. Click here to learn more.

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