The Drawing Source


Value Drawing - The Key to Realism

Examples of values in a value drawing

Value simply means how light or dark something is.

A drawing is said to be a value drawing when it is in black and white, when it has no color. Black, white, and the many shades of gray in between the two are called values.

Value is all around you. In fact, value allows us to see form. Take a look around. Are you sitting at a table? How can you tell that it's three-dimensional? The side plane and top plane of the table are two different values, right?

We see form through differences in value (or differences in lightness and darkness). No matter what color something is, when an object turns away from light, it becomes darker. These differences in value make objects look three-dimensional.

This is why...

Value is one of the most important elements of realistic (or representational) drawing. If you can use pencil and paper to mimic the way that values appear in life, then you can create believable, illusionistic drawings!

The Importance of Value Drawing

Detail of Le Pater by Alphonse Mucha Why is value drawing the key to realism?

Well, we know that values are the shades of gray used in drawing to depict light and shadow.

Without light and shadow we couldn't draw (or see) anything, so it's difficult to overstate the importance of this concept!

Values create the illusion of form and three-dimensionality. More specifically, the relationships between the values of an object make it look convincingly realistic. (Learn more about value, light and form by clicking here)

(Left - detail of Le Pater
by Alphonse Mucha)

Analyzing value
For example, let’s look at a photograph of a sphere (Fig 1).

What happens if I change the value of only one element on the form (therefore changing the value relationships in the scene)?

Analyzing value
In Fig 2 I have drastically lightened the shadow area on the sphere without changing any other values in the image.

The result is that it looks unnatural and defies logical sense.

It looks like there is a very strong reflected light illuminating the sphere's lower half, but where could it come from if the surface on which the sphere sits is unaffected?

Additionally, lightening only the shadows caused the sphere to lose much of its three dimensionality.

If you were to make this same mistake in a drawing, it would have the same effect – your drawing would not look realistic because its value relationships would not mimic the ones occurring in life.

If you don’t accurately represent the relationships between the
values of an object, you will not create a convincing drawing.

In this lies the importance of learning about and becoming comfortable with value drawing.

Value and Illusion

Value drawing by Marina Fridman
Study of a Girl by Marina Fridman

When we draw, we attempt to create an illusion of the values found in nature. We cannot truly recreate the exact values found in nature for several reasons:

1. There are an infinite number of values in nature. Our human vision is relatively poor, which makes it impossible for us to even see this full value range!

2. The drawing tools available to us have limited capabilities, restricting the value range that we can create using pencil and paper.

While this may sound like a fault, it does not hinder our ability to create very realistic illusions of form and perspective. Why? Because you don’t need an infinite range of values to create convincing drawings!

In fact...

You can depict what you see most effectively
by simplifying your observations.

Simplifying values will produce a much better drawing than recording every value and minute detail that you see. Artists realized this hundreds of years ago and created a system of simplifying and organizing values called...

The Value Scale

Artists use a system of nine values ranging from white to black, called a value scale. The scale consists of four light values (the “lights”), a middle value, and four dark values (the “darks”). Learn how to draw a value scale here.

The value scale

Portrait by Alphonse Mucha
Portrait by Alphonse Mucha

In drawing, the values on the value scale become your visual alphabet.

You can think of each value as a letter.

On its own, one letter may not convey much. But when combined with other letters into words, it creates a language through which you can communicate.

In the same way, we combine values to create drawings: a visual form of communication.

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