Value / Tone

A very important element in, especially drawings and paintings, is value (or tone). In this context, value means light and dark. Sometimes referred to by the Italian word “chiaroscuro” (literally “light/dark”), value is often described visually by a scale with varying shades of gray arranged between black and white.  But remember that colors have values also—what would you call a light value of red?

Similar values distributed in patterns throughout a work of art can lead the viewer’s eyes around the piece to receive the message the artist intended to send. Thus value is an important compositional device, but values can be used to create the illusion of space as well. 

When the artist is working a flat, two-dimensional surface, as in drawing and painting, in order to create three-dimensional, rounded or projecting objects, he or she must rely on illusion alone  (more on 2-D and 3-D later). In other words, the 2-D artist must learn to “fake it.” A circle is rendered into a ball by using smooth, TRANSITIONAL values, gently moving from dark to light, whereas a box needs ABRUPT value changes to show that the light is different around its corners, top, and the side facing the viewer. BROKEN values are what cause us to see texture in a drawing, painting or print. Looking closely at a rendering of crumpled paper, you can see many little abrupt changes in value which, when you move back from the artwork, blend to become the subject matter. Generally, lighter values appear to be “closer” to the viewer, and darker values tend to “recede” from the viewer. All of these characteristics of value help the artist create illusions of space in two-dimensional works of art.

Now that you know the basics about Value and Tone, click here to practice what you know.


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