Little did I know that my drawing background would give me a good foundation in value for my painting. Value is how light or dark that color is.

  • For example: If you took a black and white photograph of your painting, the shades of gray would be the different values within the painting.

red barn painting in Idaho red barn painting, idaho

(“Approaching Shadows” by Lori McNee ©2006)

Simply put, value is the lightness or darkness of a color or hue.

  • In painting, value changes can be achieved by adding either black or white to the chosen color. (Below: chart on left)
  • However, this also reduces the saturation and adds to the dilution of the color. (Below: chart on right)
  • Tintstones, and shades are variations of the hues found on the basic color wheel when white, black or both are mixed in.

value scale


Believe it or not, value is more important than color to the design and success of a painting.

  • Value is used to create a focal point within a painting or drawing.
  • The human eye is immediately drawn to a light element against a dark element. This creates, the focal point of interest.
  • To create the illusion of depth, gradations of value are also used.
  • Areas of light and dark give a three-dimensional  illusion of form to subject matter.

2 high light
3 light
4 low light
5 midvalue
6 high dark
7 dark
8 low dark
9 black

The above value scale of Denman Ross was introduced in 1907. His value terms set the standard still used today. This scale helps artists understand and identify light, mid-tones and darks more easily.

Value is independent of its hue. This is a fundamental element in the impact of visual art whether abstract or representational.

The above example is a painting “en grisaille” – a painting done entirely in values of grey or another neutral greyish color. Grisaille was sometimes used for underpaintings or for oil sketches. Rubens was noted for this.
Today, many successful artists believe in keeping a narrow value scale – limiting their composition to approximately 4 values. In this case it seems, less is more and helps create a cohesive and harmonious work.
Below is a contrasting example of the use of values. Whistler used ‘low-key’ values and Monet used ‘high-key’ values and achieved dramatically different results.

You might also enjoy:

A Unique Approach Using Color Harmony to Improve Paintings

Use the Hidden Meaning of Color to Improve Paintings

How to Bring Out the Mona Lisa in Your Own Artwork

What is Tonalism in Painting?

For further reading on the internet: Tone Value and Painting Color Tone

Lori McNee

Lori McNee is a professional artist who specializes in still life, and landscape oil paintings. She is an exhibiting member of Oil Painters of America, Plein Air Painters of Idaho, serves on the Plein Air Mag Board of Advisors, and is an Artist Ambassador to Arches/Canson/Royal Talens. As the owner of, Lori blogs about fine art tips, marketing, and social media advice for the aspiring and professional artist. As a social media influencer, Lori ranks as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women on Twitter, has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and named a #TwitterPowerhouse by The Huffington Post. She is a keynote speaker, has been a talk show host for Plum TV, writes for F+W Media publications including Artist’s Magazine, Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market, Photographer’s Market. Also, Zero to 100,000: Social Media Tips & Tricks for Small Businesses. Lori is also a member of the CBS Entertainment Tonight & The Insider Tweet Team.

10 thoughts on “The Importance of Value & Tone in Painting

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  2. Kelly Clark Boldt says:

    Thank you for so generously sharing your knowledge. Your explanations are so understandable for novices like myself. It makes me want to keep reading more — its a great way to motivate people to learm more.

    Thanks again!

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  6. Donna says:

    Hi Lori – thanks so much for sharing your blog. Very important information. I have forwarded your blog address to my students to read your post on the importance of value.

  7. Lee Meadows says:

    Lori… you did an “excellent job,” explaining this, especially adding the B&W value chart next to the color chart. So many people have a hard time understanding the black-and-white values related to the color values.

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