How to Draw Anything You See, Part 3: Value

In our first two lessons, we created line drawings of what we saw.   We focused on contours and negative spaces.  In this lesson, we will learn about value, a color’s lightness or darkness.

Value is one of the three components of any color.  The other two components are hue and chroma and will be discussed in future lessons on color theory.  Value is also known as tone.

An appropriately varied value distribution is the most important element of any successful representational drawing or painting.  It is so important that many artists will create a value study (a grayscale drawing or painting) before starting any serious painting.

The Old Masters of painting used only a few hues in many of their paintings.  Most of these hues were at low intensity, which means that they were dull.  (Intensity is another word for chroma.)  Bright, high-intensity hues were used sparingly.  The painters of old relied heavily on changes in value to achieve timeless, powerful effects:

Rembrandt’s 1657 St. Bartholomew
Rembrandt’s 1659 Self-Portrait
John Singleton Copley’s Mrs. Thomas Gage

Let’s take color out of the equation and focus on black-and-white (grayscale) drawings for now.  (We will tackle color in future posts.)  The crux of drawing in grayscale is to create a controlled tone somewhere between black and white.  It often doesn’t matter how that controlled tone is achieved.

This is a public domain line drawing of a rose:

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Real objects don’t have actual lines denoting their boundaries from other objects.  Contrast the above line drawing with this charcoal value study of a rose, on watercolor paper, that I created a couple years ago for my mother:


The rose in the charcoal study looks more realistic because it relies on gradations in value rather than on boundary lines.

The artist can depict changes in value both directly and indirectly.  Direct methods involve laying down an actual desired value, which is more straightforward in painting than in drawing, where the materials (appropriate paper, appropriate hardness and darkness of media, etc.) are important.  Indirect methods hint at the desired value and, from a distance, replicate it.  Indirect methods are ideal for pen drawings.  They include hatching, cross-hatching, and stippling, among others:

Screen shot 2014-03-15 at 6.58.59 PM

Screen shot 2014-03-15 at 6.58.05 PM

Screen shot 2014-03-15 at 6.57.02 PM

This is an excellent ballpoint pen sketch by Xiaonan Sun, done almost entirely by hatching and cross-hatching:

Hatching and cross-hatching take some practice getting used to.  You may want to use these indirect techniques to practice shading circles to make them look spherical and rectangles to make them look cylindrical.

Although, as mentioned above, it usually doesn’t matter how your controlled tone is achieved, it can be advantageous to create marks parallel to the contours being shaded, because such marks suggest the contours and their associated values.  Finally, you can suggest certain textures better with some mark patterns than with others.

There’s much more to the study of value, of course, but this will do for a primer!


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