Color Theory 101: Part 2 – Value

Color Theory 101: Part 2 – Value

As we learned in last month’s issue, color is more complicated than meets the eye. There are three main attributes of color that can help us become better colorists – hue, value and saturation. Last month I discussed the actual variation of color, also called hue. This month’s topic is value. In Part 3 of this series I will discuss saturation.

After last month’s article and exercises I hope it was easier for you to pick out a color scheme for your coloring. And, despite having picked out a solid color strategy, did you find that sometimes you weren’t happy about the way the page turned out? Maybe it looked a bit flat or dull. Why is this? It could be that the page is too much of all one value. Without using different values in a work – that is to say dark, medium and light – the liveliness and even the pattern can be lost. Quilts are a great example of the importance of value. Without strong value contrast, the patterns in many traditional quilts are not clear. The same holds true with the work of our coloring pages – value contrast helps the page to visually pop. Additionally, mandala’s and other repetitive patterns are especially reliant upon good value changes to be understandable.

What is value?

Value is essentially the relative lightness or darkness of a color. When single colors are used alone, with even pressure applied, the result is a flat, cartoonish effect. This is especially easy to accomplish with markers. While this is perfectly suitable for coloring and other graphic design, learning to change a color’s value expands the artist’s skill at creating a three dimensional look on a two dimensional piece of paper. Shading can be accomplished by changing a color’s value. And, as discussed previously, value changes help make a drawing more comprehensible.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand value is to view a black and white photograph. A black and white photo depicts a range of tonal values that extend from light (white) to dark (black). The shades of gray are the values that allow us to differentiate detail. While most of us can completely understand this concept looking at a black and white photo, when color is added the task of discerning value becomes much more difficult. Colors themselves are lighter or darker in value relative to each other.

BWFlowerIn this black and white photo, the dark background value stands in stark contrast with the lighter values in the flower. The subtle variations in gray allow the viewer to see the flower in three dimension.

An exercise in color value

This exercise will help you to understand how a range of values can be accomplished in coloring using only one color. The goal is to use black and white colored pencil over one hue to create a continuum of values ranging from light to dark.


  • Colored pencil in any hue
  • Black colored pencil
  • White colored pencil
  • White paper
  • Ruler or straight edge (optional)
  • Eraser


Figure 1

With the ruler or straight edge, (or by hand) draw a long rectangular box across the width of the paper. Make it about 1 inch high by 9 inches long. Then divide the rectangle into 9 squares. (1” x 1” squares). Exact dimensions are not necessary. (Figure 1)

Figure 2. Black on one end, white on the other, with the same color of blue in all the other squares.

With the colored pencil, begin very lightly and evenly coloring in the squares, leaving the first square blank—or white. At the very opposite end, color that square black. You are trying to get every square between the black and white the same shade. (Figure 2)

Black and white are added to the base color to get a range of values from light to dark. In this example, cross-hatching is used as the blending method.

Gradually add black into the colored squares, working progressively from the black square on the end toward the center and lightening the amount of black colored pencil as you go. At the white end of the scale, add white colored pencil. You many need to use an eraser to lighten the end closest to the white square. (Most art students use paint to do this exercise, which makes it easier to achieve the lightest values, but it can be accomplished with pencil using a very light hand). (Figure 3)

As you can see, the blue values on this scale range from a bluish white (lightest value) to a blue-black (darkest value). This graded scale of values helps us to see the variation that can be achieved with one color alone mixed with black and white.

Application to your own work

This artwork by our featured artist Ellen Million shows how value can add perspective to a design. The bright green grass in the foreground implies sunshine, while changes in value to darker greens to indicate areas farther away in shadow. Subtle changes in value indicate the shadows of the figures standing in the foreground.

The mountains show changes in value that indicate where the shadows are, including a bold line on the left to indicate the sun shining over the right mountain. Studying artwork like this will help you learn how to use value in your own designs.

Study black and white photos of subject matter that you enjoy coloring. Pay attention to what parts of these subjects are in shadow (darkest values) to highlighted areas (lightest values). You can apply value changes similarly when you color. A light hand with your pencils (or adding white) will create the highlighted areas, while use of black (or Indigo Blue, Purple, or Forest Green) over the main color will create areas of shade or shadow in your work.

Finally, it is important to think of value in terms of light, medium and dark and to use a combination of all three in your coloring work. As with combining colors, where too many colors sprinkled throughout a work can be disharmonious, be similarly careful not to use drastic value changes in a scattered manner. Instead, think of value as contrast for differentiating between foreground, middle-ground and background.

Experiment and get loose

Feel free to experiment with value changes. Try photocopying a page and coloring it with the same colors each time, while varying the values of the fore, middle and backgrounds. For instance, use black for the darkest values to create the background, the white of the paper for highlights in the foreground, and nearly pure colors for the middle-ground. Or try using dark blue, green or purple in your shadowed areas. Remember – using a complimentary color (colors opposite each other on the color wheel) over your main color creates a brown or gray. Try experimenting with that as well.

These exercises will free you to move beyond using pure color. By thinking of a range of values in your coloring you will add depth and dimensionality to your work. Color on!

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