Save 20% on watercolor resources with code WWM21

Translate Value to Color in Watercolor Painting

Value to color in watercolor painting. The Ruins of Hankar, Ladakh by Michael Reardon, watercolor painting.
The Ruins of Hankar, Ladakh by Michael Reardon, watercolor painting. Article contributions by Kelly Kane.

Figure This Part Out and You Will Paint Anything Beautifully

If you want to really enjoy watercolor painting and sync to all of its wild, flowing, fluid possibilities, you have to understand one thing and one thing ONLY — how to break down your compositions into values, and then how you translate value to color in watercolor painting. It is really is as simple as that, and yet this one focus can definitely turn into a long-term pursuit for many of us. That’s where the instruction and incredible artistry of Michael Reardon comes in. Reardon breaks down value clearly, quickly, and understandably, so we can go quickly from value to color to finished artwork.

Value to Color in Watercolor Painting

Values are a range of tones that span from pure white to pure black. On a scale of 1 to 10, white has a value of 1, while black has a 10. Values 1 to 3 are considered light; values 4 to 7 are mid-range; and values 7 to 10 are dark. In watercolor painting, the water-to-paint ratio creates the value range. The more water added to the paint, the lighter the value. Conversely, the more paint in the mixture, the darker the value is. I use a set of dairy analogies to determine the ratio of paint to water I need for each value. For the lightest values, 
I think of non-fat milk (1-2) or a 2-percent milk consistency (3-4). For the medium to dark values, I imagine whole milk (5-6), cream (7-8) or yogurt (9-10) consistency mixtures. value scale for art

The Value of Color

None of the primary hues possess the full value range of 1-10. Yellow, for example, rarely gets beyond a 3 in value. Reds and blues have a greater range, but never get to 10 on their own. They must be mixed to reach a true black. Generally the staining colors have the greatest range. For example, I make black by mixing Phthalo Green and Carmine. Cobalt Blue is strictly a mid-range hue. No matter which colors are mixed with it, it will never get very dark. It is very important to understand which colors have large value ranges, and which don’t. Since watercolors dry so much lighter than when wet, it is very common to think you have painted a rich dark color when in fact it’s a mid-range value when it dries. Here are some tips for how to translate value to color in watercolor painting. value to color in watercolor painting

Bismuth Vanadate Yellow

All yellows have a limited value range, from 2 to 5. Bismuth Vanadate Yellow, a relatively strong yellow, reaches a value of 3 at full strength. Some yellows, such as Aureolin, are very weak and have a value range of perhaps 2. You can never make a dark yellow. value to color in watercolor painting


Generally reds have a scale of 2-8. These include the powerhouse reds, such as Carmine and Alizarin Crimson. There are some weak reds, such as Rose Madder, that only reach 2 to 5 or so. value to color in watercolor painting

Phthalo Blue

Blues have a similar value range to the darker reds, with some variations. Phthalo Blue can go as dark as 9 on the value scale. Cobalt Blue and Cerulean Blue only achieve about a 6 or 7.

Translate Value to Color in Watercolor Painting | An Example

Ponte Sant'Angelo by Michael Reardon, watercolor painting.
Ponte Sant’Angelo by Michael Reardon, watercolor painting.
Take note of the values of the deepest blue shadows in the painting above. On a value scale, they achieve about an 8, even though they are painted at almost full strength. The color base is Cobalt Blue mixed with a bit of Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet to increase the value range and give it a slight purple tint. I often use this mixture in place of Ultramarine Blue, which granulates more than this mixture. True black areas are a mixture of this deep blue with Phthalo Green and Carmine, also close to full strength. The red tile roofs in the distance are painted with a dense mixture of Cadmium Orange. You will see that the same Cadmium Orange is in the plaza foreground, almost fully diluted. Note that the water to pigment ratio is key to achieving the correct values in your painting. By knowing the range of individual colors you can mix the values you desire.

Watercolor Painting Tip

Watercolors dry lighter than when they’re first applied. You usually have to apply the paint in a value higher up the scale to get the tone you want in the end.

More On Value, Color, Shadow and Light

Take these lessons and turn your attention to creating dramatic light filled and shadow drenched watercolor paintings. To do so, get your hands on even more of Michael Reardon’s enlightening instruction. His Watercolor Painting – Light and Color in Cityscapes Video Download is just the thing. Nuff said. Enjoy! Save Save Save Save Save Save Save Save

Join the conversation!

2 comments on “Translate Value to Color in Watercolor Painting

  1. Gail R says:

    I have noticed that the value scale by many artist authors have it backwards, check out a few books if you don’t believe me. They state that 10 is the lightest (what???? isn’t zero lack of any value = white?) – which would be totally confusing to beginners. If the instructor tells a student that the value should be a 2 or 3 that could be misconstrued as a darker value if that’s what they have been taught. The value scales that are sold, thankfully, have it right. I wonder where all this mis-information began….?

    • carolyn l says:

      Gail, I agree with your observation, and I haven’t a clue how this started! I’ve noticed photographers use a 10 step system, where 1 is white, 10 is black. In the art realm it’s 9 steps, where black is 1 and white is 9. Once I noticed this, it was easy to see this everywhere! Sketch books are now available with value 7 paper; Gamblin’s pre-mixed Portland grays are in values 3, 5, and 7; Gray paper palettes for oil painters are value 7,; and I noticed many oil painters tone their canvas to a value 7.

Become a member today!

Choose an option below to join now.


Save 16.59% with our annual plan and get a FREE GIFT!

  • Videos: Stream 850+ instructional workshops, specially designed for every medium and skill level.
  • Discounts: Unlock 30% off additional magazines + offers with our retail partners!
  • eBooks: Explore our library of how-to topics, tips, and techniques.
  • Magazines: Access Artists Magazine archives and new issues with a print subscription.
  • Newsletter: A weekly email featuring a selection of videos and more.

View Membership Benefits

*Membership cannot be purchased with Gift Cards or PayPal.