Use Values To Create Strong Compositions

Use Values To Create Strong Compositions

Becky Joy2 comments
Values or tones are the relative lightness and darkness of colors with the color removed. It has nothing to do with color. It is the backbone of a painting. The most important design element of a painting. If you took a photo of a painting and converted it to black and white, that would give you the values of each color.  The lightest value being white and the darkest black. Key is another term used by artists. A painting can be low key, using the darker values of a gray scale. A high key painting uses the lighter values. Below is a simple gray scale.

values in composition

To use the values in painting, let's keep it simple creating a painting with three shapes of varying sizes. Now, use three values, light, medium and dark. Each of those three shapes have a distinct value. But, you can have an infinite variety of color within each shape.

Once you start painting different values within a shape, you start breaking that large, simple shape into small pieces. Each of the three shapes should be a different size. If you make your largest shape a dark value, the painting will have a different mood and feeling than having that same shape in a light value.

So, you must be careful or you will soon lose the power of your composition. Be consistent with your values within those simple, large shapes to hold your composition together. I used a "real life" painting that demonstrates the simplicity of shapes and values. This is a plein air painting in which I made the decision to move the trees and group them into one large, dark shape. I placed them against the light of the mountain in the background.

By making these changes, my painting has a better composition than what I saw in reality. I do have color shifts in the trees and mountain with warmer and cooler colors, but basically I kept those large shapes intact with the values. Below is the  color version of the painting so that you can see the color shifts and variety of colors in the shapes. In the grass I have bits of violets, pinks, greens, golds and yellows, creating a visually more exciting painting, but again, keeping those values consistent.


I hope this post gives some clarity to the use of shapes, values and colors. What do you think? How have you used values? Have you changed your subjects to unify your paintings? Becky Joy


You definitely need to simplify the scene first. Make a small value sketch and stick to that. But, an exercise you can try is taking a photo sit down with some paper and marker or make simple painted value sketches (keep it simple). Try making several scenes from that one photo, different formats, rectangular, square skinny and long, etc. This can help you to start moving things and looking at them differently. Remember that you’re objective is to make it a beautiful scene first. If you change it, no one knows. Once you start, it’s like building your vocabulary in creativity. You will be struck with more ideas. It took me a while, but it was one of the aha moments when an instructor finally got through to me.
Jonquil LeMaster
Jonquil LeMaster
When you see a scene that captures your interest, do you always “reposition” the elements into value shapes? Sometimes I am attracted by a scene and then get confused by its complexity, as I paint. I seem to lack the confidence to leave things out, move elements. Afraid it will loose its “magic” Maybe if I simplified the composition first?

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