Value Study – Why is it important when creating art?

value study and value sketch

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How can you create a well-balanced and successful composition in your paintings? A successful and well-balanced composition is key to creating a painting that looks professional and finished. Without a good composition, your painting will lack unity and may even appear chaotic.

The best way to achieve a successful composition is by using a value study. In this type of drawing, you assign a value (lightness or darkness) to every shape in the painting. This will help you to see how the shapes interact with one another and whether or not the values are distributed evenly.

What are values in art?

In value studies, artists break down the subject matter into a series of different tones. Tones are basically how light or dark something appears. The value scale is a range of tones from white to black. No matter what color something is, it will have a value that falls somewhere on this scale.

Value studies help you to determine which values to use in your painting and where to place them. This is especially important when working with a limited palette, as you want to make sure that your colors are distributed evenly throughout the painting and that they create a sense of harmony.

So, the next time you sit down to paint, remember to do a value study first! It will help you create a composition that is well-balanced and

What is the importance of a value study?

I have to admit, I never did a value study until I was a much older and experienced artist. That doesn’t mean they are useless. Had I known about them earlier I would have started doing value studies from day 1 and saved myself a lot of time reworking my paintings.

A value study is important because it helps to create a successful composition. Without a good composition, your painting will lack unity and may even appear chaotic. A value study will help you to see how the shapes interact with one another and whether or not the values are distributed evenly. This is especially important when working with a limited palette, as you want to make sure that your colors are distributed evenly throughout the painting and that they create a sense of harmony.

What are some benefits of doing a value study before starting a new painting or drawing project?

Some benefits of doing a value study include:

  • Helps you see if a painting will work – being able to see if a painting’s composition will work by executing a quick value sketch is a great time saver. Do one before investing in hours and you will thank yourself.
  • Helps to create a successful composition – this means that the shapes in your painting will interact well with each other and look balanced.
  • See how shapes interact with one another – value studies help you to see how not only the shapes will interact with each other but also the colors or shades will before you start painting. This way, you can make changes to the composition before you commit paint or more time to the artwork.
  • Make sure values are distributed evenly – value studies help you to check that the values in your painting are distributed evenly. This creates a more balanced and harmonious painting.
  • Create a sense of harmony in the painting – value studies help you to create a sense of harmony in your painting by using light and dark values. This will give the painting a more professional and finished appearance.
  • Creating a focal point – value studies can also help you to create a focal point in your painting. This is the area of the painting that will draw the viewer’s eye first. I have a post all about focal points here.

Doing a value study is an important part of creating a successful and well-balanced painting. It will help you to see the relationships between the different shapes and colors in your painting and make sure that they are all working together to create a cohesive image.

Are there any downsides to doing a value study before beginning a new piece of artwork?

While value studies can help you to create a more successful composition, they can also be time-consuming. It can feel like you’re creating lots of versions of the artwork that you are not going to use.

To get around this, you may use digital apps and a tablet to create value studies that can be quick and easy to put together and not waste any valuable artist materials.

Another downside to creating a value study is if you are working on a tight deadline, you may not have the luxury of spending hours creating a value study. However, if you have the time, we highly recommend doing one! Value studies can save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run by helping you to avoid making common mistakes in your composition.

How do you create a value study?

A value study is a drawing that will simply show a series of values from light to darkest and you can apply those tones to your value sketch. A value study and a value sketch go hand in hand, some artists even use the terms interchangeably.

Just follow the diagrams in the sections below using your favorite medium and that is as simple as a value study can get.

Start with a value scale

I like to start by making a simple value scale of the pencils or charcoals that I will be using for my value study / value sketch. It lets me know the range of values (light to dark) that I will be working with in my value sketch.

value study pencils
Value scale for pencils

Some artists like using a numbering system to assign values but I think seeing the results is much easier than working out a numbered scale. I don’t work with a huge range of values, I tend to achieve differing values by applying more or less pressure on my pencils or charcoals.

I have also shown a similar value scale using charcoals.

value study charcoals
Value scale with charcoals

Now that I know the value scale I will be working with and what the results of each pencil or charcoal will look like, I will start work on my value study (which I prefer to call a value sketch).

How do you create a value sketch?

Creating a value sketch is actually easier than you think. Simply start by sketching out your composition with light pencil strokes on a piece of paper (or digital app). Just draw some light outlines using a 2H pencil or hard charcoal.

You will then block in the darker areas followed by midtones which are the grays in between the white and the dark black tones of your value sketch.

Keep the size of your sketch small. If you find you can’t control yourself and you risk drawing a large scale sketch with too much detail then I suggest you create something the size of a thumbnail sketch to start with and slowly increase the size.

For my example, we will be drawing a landscape (it is based on an image from Norway that I downloaded online).

norway 2708286 640
Norway image I will use for my value study

The value scale of the sky if it is sunny and during the day will be very light. If it is a night scene or there are storms and gray clouds then the value of the sky will be higher and darker. I’m going to assume it is a sunny day with some clouds.

Let’s start by sketching in the mid values first (remember that light value 0 is typically just plain white) so you’re actually sketching in the midtones at this stage and what is left over are the light tones.

I like to use a hard pencil or charcoal for this. Something like a 2H pencil or a hard to medium charcoal. These would be values 1 to 2 as an example.

Light values for my value study using a 2H pencil to start

As you move your way around to the horizon line you will see some darker values in the clouds, some trees and then darker values in the mountains in the background as well as for the house.

Now I will use a HB pencil as I start to draw the values of the mountains, we are not actually drawing mountains, we are looking to block in tonal values represented as basic shapes of trees and mountains – no detail! (See below)

Adding an HB pencil to add darker values to my value study

Any shadows are your darker values. I used a 4B for the dark values for the mountains and shoreline and rock shadows.

Adding darker values with a 4B pencil

I then added an 8B pencil for even darker values such as the house and the shadows of the mountain behind it. I then added some 8B to make the shadows on the rocks at the front more pronounced.

Added 8B pencil for even darker values

As you can see from the above, I have barely drawn any detail but you can still make out the image. If I wanted to create a painting of this, I would block in some underpainting using the same tonal values or value scale but using paint.

That would give me enough of an idea that my composition is right before going ahead and committing valuable time and materials to painting or drawing the actual detail.

Additional notes on value studies

If I am still struggling with drawing too much detail then what I like to do is use some pastels or charcoal to quickly put together a monochrome version of my planned artwork and see where there is balance and work out how to correct it if there are value imbalances.

Charcoals and pastels are usually so thick that drawing detail in a small size is actually impossible.

Other artists like to create a value sketch using watercolors. You can in fact use anything as long as you can determine the values of light to dark.

Once you have your value sketch complete, you can start to add color and more detail.

Remember, the goal of a value sketch is not to create a final work of art, but rather to help you understand the value relationships in your composition. As such, don’t worry about making it perfect – just focus on getting the value proportions right.

Have a look at a video I have found online that I think is quite useful where they use watercolor to create a value study.

Can you use digital tools to help with creating accurate values in your artwork?

Yes, you can use digital tools to help with creating values. I love using Procreate on my iPad as it gives me the most realistic experience as an artist that can quickly be translated into physical art.

Digital painting has become increasingly popular in recent years, and for good reason. It offers a level of flexibility and control that traditional painting simply can’t match. You can delete, rework and resample the values on the fly without wasting expensive artist materials.

In Procreate I can simple make my charcoal thick and block in the values that I need using a new layer for each value. So if I am working with 4 values, I create 4 layers and that leaves me the freedom to experiment and edit values as needed.

Value Study Apps

There are also quite a few Value Study apps that you can use that will help you improve your value studies. Most will help you take a picture and then convert it to a value study stripping away the details and focusing on the individual colors or shades.

I have listed the only high rated value study app that may be of interest to you. If these apps are no longer available, I suggest performing a search for “value study apps” in your respective app store.

I was unable to find a value study app for Android so your only option is the app listed below.

Screen Shot 2022 06 21 at 3.59.00 pm
Value Study 4+
Your artist’s assistant
Diem Limited

How do you practice drawing values?

There are a few different ways that you can practice drawing values. One way is to create a value scale, which is a series of squares with each square having a different value. Another way is to take a reference photo and break it down into shapes, then assign each shape a value.

If I am working from a photo, I actually digitize the photo and turn it into a monochrome image and break it down into the various values that way. I can then trace the values with a drawing app and learn how the various values make up my image.

Value Study – Wrap up!

Value studies are an important tool for any artist to use, especially if they are new to painting. They can help you to create a successful and well-balanced composition, while also saving you time and frustration in the long run.

Create value studies on a regular basis and you will not only develop value scales that suit your personal needs but you will become so proficient at making them that it will be part of the natural process of making art.


Norway landscape image by David Mark from Pixabay

All images of drawings are my own and are copyright. If you wish to share these images, please ensure you have linked back to this article.

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Joe Colella - Chief Wasted Talent
Joe Colella – Chief Wasted Talent

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