The Value of Value

Take a look at the images below. On the left is an original painting by Geoffrey Warburton, and on the right is my edited version, in which I spent a couple minutes working on its values. Overall, the original image is well drawn, meaning the shapes appear to be accurately rendered. However, the painting’s unrealistic values prevent the scene from feeling lifelike.

value demonstration copy

In my last post, we talked about the importance of values in painting realistic scenes. Inaccurate values (the dark and light aspects of an image) plague countless would-be-great paintings. Why is this such a common problem and how can we fix it?

Can you spot the differences between the before and after images? Which version ‘pulls’ the viewer in more? Without a reference photo of the actual forest, any adjustments are just approximations, but improvements can still be made. In general, the edited version appears darker but not completely so — several of the original elements have been left untouched. This reveals the number-one mistake most painters make with values: not going dark enough. The main problem stems from the amazing human eye. Our eyes are actually too good. By constantly adjusting their sensitivity to varying light levels, shadows that should appear dark in relation to brighter lit areas actually look, to the untrained eye, lighter than they truly are!One of the most effective ways to prevent from ‘over-seeing’ in the shadows is to squint down one’s eyes. By squinting, we reduce the overall value of our subject. This helps prevent our eyes from overworking and makes value relationships easier to discern. Give it a try and let me know in the comments if squinting works for you. 

What’s Real?


This stunning painting, by Mark Tennant, pushes the concept of realism to its limit. With so little information to guide the viewer, why does it still appear so realistic? The answer lies mainly in strong draftsmanship and an accurate use of values. These two qualities are the most important skills to master for any aspiring realism artist.

Draftsmanship or the ability to draw shapes and proportions accurately is usually the first skill an artist attempts to master. However, the importance of values — or how to render light and dark features correctly in relation to each other — is often overlooked or improperly executed by beginners (not to mention many professionals!).

The human eye, as advanced as it is, evolved from what was originally just a few light-sensitive cells. For a long time, all one could perceive was shades of grey blobs. And for this reason, the perception of value is still the most deeply associated quality we equate with visual reality.

So, how do we master value painting? More on that in the next post.