• Shawn Dell Joyce artist

Seeing Color As Value

This topic seems to be a recurring one in my blog because many artists contact me with questions on seeing color as value.

Value is the gradation from dark to light-the backbone of the composition and painting. Value is like using good grammar to communicate a point.

Color is interpretive. The Impressionists proved that you don't have to be true to nature to communicate an idea in art, just true to value.

This means you can literally substitute any color as long as it is the correct value. Don't believe me?


Ok lets start with this reference photo. Its mostly greyed out by the sun so its easier to separate the shapes in this photo into value masses:

Next we break the photo down into values. Here's the darkest values of 5's:

Next the 4's are all blocked in:


This shows shapes of darks, and medium values:

now with the lights, or 2's and 1's

Here's all 5 values with the 2's being mostly in the water and sky and 1's being highlights on the kayak and vest.

Now that we have the value masses broken down, we can start playing with the color. Colors that are similar in value can be substitutes. For example, purple can be a 5 value, while yellow can be a 2 value and give us a combination like this:


Also, orange and blue can be substituted for the same values giving us this:


I liked the look of the orange/blue palette so I worked it up into a more resolved painting:


This is a great exercise to get your creative color juices flowing. I highly recommend you do a few studies playing with color like this. It helps to let go of the literal approach to color and give you juicier compositions.

In my plein air classes and workshops, I encourage participants to substitute even one high chroma color for a value to see what happens in your work.

Please try this, and post below if you take my advice. I would love to see your work!

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