In This Lesson:
The term "value" in artwork simply refers to lightness or darkness. Value development in our approach to drawing comes after the structure and proportion of objects has been developed in line and describes the effect of the light as it interacts with our subject.
If we use lines and shapes to convey the structure and proportion of objects, we use values to convey the other half of the visual experience: the effect of the light. It’s important to keep them separate because they are very different things.
Let’s do an experiment. Look at any object in the room. Chances are you’re looking at something with clearly visible surfaces and defined edges – a chair, a table, a coffee cup... whatever. Part of it is illuminated, part of it is in shadow. You’re having an everyday visual experience of that object. Now turn off the lights. What happened? Whatever you were looking at hasn’t moved – all its physical properties are still there. But now you can’t see it, or if you can it looks drastically different. What’s changed? Obviously, it’s the light. The object itself is unaltered but appears different because the light has been adjusted.
What this little experiment demonstrates is that any object and the light that illuminates it are two completely different things. There is no lasting connection between them. In fact, we don’t actually see “things” at all; we see only the light they reflect. So in order for us to see anything there must be an interaction between light and matter, and it is merely their respective characteristics that determine how things will appear to us. Since matter and the light that reveals it to us are separate, it makes sense to address them separately when drawing – a primary linear stage, driven by lines and shapes, that describes the structure our subject, and a secondary tonal stage, driven by values, that describes the effects of the light.
What is “Value”?
“Value” simply refers to lightness or darkness. Shadows have a darker value than lights, for example, while a white object has a lighter value than a grey object. The full spectrum of values between black and white is called the “value scale” and like pitches in music, individual values have a specific place on that scale.
Think of the keys on a piano: each one is tuned to a precise pitch, higher or lower than the one next to it, and together they give us “notes” to play music. Different notes can be played together in chords which will each have a unique sound.
Value for artists is rather like pitch for musicians – different values in our drawing are like keys on a keyboard or strings on a guitar. Each one must be precisely calibrated relative to all the others in an image or our visual “music” will be out of tune.
The ability to discern values, the intervals between them, and reproduce those intervals on paper is key to capturing the effect of the light in drawing.