How to Use a Value System When Creating Your Artwork

As a plein-air and online instructor, my teaching strategies are similar to achieve a successful outcome in my artwork. Even if I work in pencil, pastels, acrylics and oils the strategy is the exact same. Only in watercolours do I use a slightly different strategy…but more on that later. In fact the strategy I employ in teaching is pretty much how I draw and paint every day.

So how can you make strong successful outcomes with your painting without wasting time? You need a system.

Many professional and serious artists are already familiar with using a 9 value system or even 10 with the Munsell system.

Munsell System

The Munsell System models colour in terms of value, chroma and hue. It is usually modelled in 3 dimensions and has a height of 10 values. It comes in various forms one being small chips that can be used for direct comparison with natural colour.

But it is also common practice particularly in plein-air to make 5 value-maps before committing to paint. You can even reduce this to just 2 or 3 values once you have the experience. If it works effectively in a value map, then it will work effectively in colour.

Value should not be underestimated for its ability to make or break a composition. As the saying goes VALUE DOES ALL THE WORK BUT COLOUR GETS ALL THE CREDIT!!!

What is value? Why is it so important?

When we paint and draw something from a source, directly or from a photo, we are in essence trying to suggest light. The direction of light and it’s luminosity and its colour. We can observe subtleties such as how light reacts with objects and spaces. How its intensity can be effected, for example by the surface of the object it hits, the properties of the objects and space will have a bearing too.

Everything reacts to light. Basically we have to analyse how much light is hitting particular areas of an object or space and convey this in our drawing or painting. As an object or a space moves away from a light source it begins to darken. If an object only receives light from one direction then this surface will be lighter than the surface areas that have less or no light.  These differences in surface tones of light can be measured as values on a scale from light to dark. When we can correctly ascertain these values and their relationships to one another and relate this in our artwork, then we can achieve greater illusions of reality.

How do you teach someone how to use colour and recognise value at the same time? Then how do you teach someone how to mix a particular colour to the correct value? If demonstration is not enough what else does one need? Complicated questions that all art instructors will recognise.

My answer was simple. I needed a system. Something that is simple, reliable and that anyone can access quickly. A system that can become a powerful tool to teaching and also for delivering quality artworks.

I had trained in Florence, and at the academy, students are encouraged to learn a value strip system to render their drawings. Then once the concept is grasped the student takes the value system into colour. The value system is traditionally split into 9 or 10 divisions like the Munsell colour system. (These days most academy’s use 9 value system as its easier for the student).

At its base there’s a numerical system attached to the value and or colour. Number 1 is the lightest light, number 5 is the absolute middle value, and number 9 is the absolute darkest. That works great if you have years to train a student. The more values you can achieve the greater the potential for realism. I decided to try showing students an abbreviated version of the 9 value system.

The 5 value map system

A 5 value map system allows the student or artist to quickly achieve success, without being overly complicated! I give my students a 5 value strip that has

  1. Lightest light.
  2. Light-Mid Value
  3. Middle-Value
  4. Dark-Mid Value
  5. Dark

They are each given an assignment such as this canal side scene. If you are a beginner, why not try these steps too.

In this example I have used 2b pencil. You could use any soft pencil or indeed charcoal. (more experienced artists may use paint, acrylic, gouache.) I have seen artists use marker pens too! Any monotone media should work but pencil is absolutely fine!

Step 1

The first step is to make an initial outline drawing.

Step 2

After making an outline drawing of the scene, place in the darkest value with a 2b pencil on standard cartridge paper.

Step 3

The next value is the middle value.

Step 4

Once this is in it is easier to find lighter middle value and finally dark middle values

Step 5

As you gradually achieve each value you will notice the drawing coming to life and quickly.

Once you follow the system using the 5 value map method and the provided strip… you then start to understand the power of value.

In an upcoming blog post I will demonstrate how to apply this same 5 value map system using colour.

John Skelcher is an art instructor of painting and drawing for the Goldster internet platform. Goldster is for everyone wanting to get more out of later life, an over 50’s club full of diverse stimulating LIVE online classes! All researched and run by experts in Healthy Ageing! These activities are specifically designed to look after your mind, body  and soul; the three key areas proven to make all the difference. 

He runs regular online classes as well as working for art exhibitions. You can find out more about John and his paintings and online classes on his website:

1 Response

  1. I have been doing lessons with John on Goldster during the last year or so when we were all locked down. I have to say, his system and explanation has taught more than any other art classes I have attended

    Can’t thank him enough.
    He has saved my sanity through this difficult year !
    My ambition now is to go and join one of his art retreats in Umbria

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