The Three Uses of Value

As we know, when we refer to value we are speaking about how light or dark a shape or form, or part of a shape or form are. Generally when we refer to value we are speaking comparatively, that is, how light or dark something is compared to something else. However, by using a value scale we can begin to assign specific values to things and to talk about value in a more precise way.

p.txt-4 2

Values serve three functions in the art of landscape painting. First, using the correct value or range of values can help us create the illusion of outdoor space, air, atmosphere, and forms receding into the picture plane and to generally create a convincing depiction of outdoor Nature. This is Carlson’s Theory of Angles and aerial perspective.

Carlson Illustration

Secondly, values can be used to create the illusion of three dimensions in specific forms like tree trunks or rocks or any other objects we might find in the landscape. This is called modeling, shading or “turning form”.


Third, values are used to create the overall structure of the painting, organizing them in such a way as to create a pleasing design. This is composition.

Morning Light 2430 72 greyscale_edited-1 Morning Light 2430 72 dpi

Of course, all these functions are interrelated. When we choose a certain value scheme to depict a sunny day for example, we are also making choices about how the values we use will help us show the solidity of forms and create a pleasing design. But, for purposes of study, it is useful to separate these functions and study them independently until they are all fully understood and can be applied together.

P.S.  Want to build a solid foundation for your landscape paintings?  In our online class Understanding Values in the Landscape  we study in depth Carlson’s Theory of Angles, atmospheric perspective and how each affects the values in every part of the landscape.  Then we take a deep dive into the all important skill of how to “key” a landscape , using a particular value range  to depict different times of day and lighting conditions. Class starts January 3 2020. Join us!

The Dark Side

One of the most challenging effects to paint are depictions of the night. Nocturnes have particularly fascinated artists since the latter part of the 19th century. Painting the night presents special challenges in “keying” the landscape- that is, selecting a range of values which best depicts the light effect desired. Of course, in the case of nocturnes, the value range moves toward the darker end of the scale. The majority of values are compressed into a very narrow range.
Here are four nocturnes by Isaac Levitan (Russian, 1860-1900) which show both the beauty and variety he brought to nocturne color harmonies. But, when we convert these to greyscale, we can see that narrow range of darker values provide the structure for these paintings.  In each of these Levitan has compressed the value scale to the “dark side” . He has used “lights” sparingly for drama and often the lights are actually a middle key. Yet, each nocturne is keyed slightly differently, but still reading as night. Study these closely and try to identify the values used in each portion of each painting. Much to be learned here!
cabin nocturne     road nocturne   bonfire.jpg!Large river nocturne   cabin nocturne desat munsell_value_scale road nocturne desat munsell_value_scale bonfire.jpg!Large desat munsell_value_scale   river nocturne desat   munsell_value_scale P.S. Our online classes Understanding Values in the Landscape I and II are scheduled for January and February and filling fast! Learn about Carlson’s Theory of Angles, atmospheric perspective, keying the landscape and lots more. Join us!

Painting Fall Foliage

It may be hard to imagine right now, but soon it will be that  time of year– when we are all tempted by the bright colors of fall foliage to throw every high chroma color we can lay our hands on onto a canvas! In many ways, painting this season can be even more daunting than painting the overwhelming green of summer. So put down that cad orange and take a few moments to read these suggestions! Painting autumn colors successfully comes down to paying attention to basics- in this case, value, chroma and temperature.


One of the most difficult notions to overcome is our perception of warm high chroma colors as lighter in value than they actually are. I am not sure why this is, but it does seem to be universally true. When I ask students to identify the values in a painting like this for example…..  (Click all images for larger view)

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.52.35 AM
Autumn Montclair George Inness


they will almost always guess that the lightest foliage areas are a 7 – 8 on the Munsell value scale, rather than  a 5-4. Of course we know from our new best friend Carlson that trees are upright planes and therefore the darkest values in the landscape, right? So, intellectually we ought to know that they would carry a darker value. But, nonetheless, when faced with an electric orange or yellow, the guess is always to the lighter side of the scale. One look at the greyscale version of the painting confirms the folly.

Inness autumn Montclair greyscale_edited-1

One other factor should help us understand, intellectually if not visually, that these colors are indeed in the mid to darker value range, and that is their intensity. As a color is tinted, i.e., made lighter, it also loses chroma. Adding lots of white to a color will inevitably lead to that color being not only lighter, but cooler and less chromatic (duller) than it was before!


red chroma 2


Chroma refers to how intense or dull a color appears. Colors in nature rarely hit the chroma jackpot in the way manmade colors do. Nature is much greyer and lower in chroma than we often realize. So, careful observation is required to convince our eyes we really are not seeing a color that comes straight off the pop tarts package. This is why in fall, when there actually is some chroma in the landscape, we tend to go overboard and paint it more chromatically and too much of it. Use restraint. That beautiful maple tree will look more fetching against a screen of more neutral trees.



Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 11.03.53 AM
Autumn Homer Dodge Martin



Temperature is perhaps the least understood of color attributes. It takes some time to see and understand temperature changes in the landscape and to know where to look for them. But, we can all agree that a fall landscape will have an overwhelmingly warm cast. Overwhelming. So, for that reason, looking for opportunities to introduce some cooler notes into your painting is very important.

Autumn Moonrise
Autumn Moonrise–Deborah Paris

So, get out there and paint the fall foliage! If you get the values right, use restraint with chroma, and add some cooler notes for variety, you will have a much better chance of success in the field.


PS Our most popular online class, Drawing & Painting Trees, starts September 6, 2019. Sign up and you will never look at a tree the same way again. Promise! Information and registration is here.

Sky Values- The Key to Big Atmospheric Skies!

One of the most important ingredients for painting big atmospheric skies is getting the values right. We know that generally speaking the sky will have the lightest values in the landscape because it is the source of light (think Carlson’s Theory of Angles- if you don’t know about that you should!). The value of a typical sunlit sky will grade from light to dark from the horizon to its zenith. But it is helpful to assign an actual value to these gradations so we can place them in proper context within the entire landscape . If you key your sky too dark, it will look leaden and lower the value of your entire painting. First, here is the Munsell value scale, running from 10 to 0, light to dark. All images can be clicked for a larger view.




So, remembering that the sky is a vault (right?) here is what that might look like, assigning values to the sky. You will note that there is just a slightly darker value that occurs right at the horizon. Often this is not visible because objects (buildings, mountains etc) are in the way. But, when it is visible, making this value adjustment is crucial.

Vault of the Sky 2The values in the sky also grade light to darker from the source of the light to the opposite side of the sky. So, near the sun, values will be lighter and get progressively darker farther away. Here is what that might look like.

Zenith 4So, go outside and look up! Observe these gradations and how they look in different parts of the sky. The values might be somewhat different from what is shown here depending on weather conditions.  For example, on an overcast day, the values will actually be lighter than they are on a sunlit day!

Often we may be painting a smaller part of the sky or a lower part of the sky than would include the whole range of gradations. But here is where some artistic license can be taken. Showing both vertical and horizontal gradations, even if not the entire range, will help make your skies look big and atmospheric.