Using Value in the Visual Arts

Using Value in the Visual Arts

What is Value?

The dictionary definition of value is the lightness or darkness of color or grayscale. This definition of value is correct, but when we study value as a design principle, value has an expanded definition.

Value in design is either High Contrast or Keys.

Some people are physically unable to perceive color, meaning they see the world in varying tones of gray. People with this color deficit can function in life with minimal difficulties.

Interestingly, there are 1000s of shades of gray, yet the human eye typically discerns only about 40 shades. To put this in perspective, many copiers print about 8-10 shades of gray.

A Little Color Theory

You need to know the color theory concepts to understand the value concepts.

In color theory, you learn:

  1. All color is affected by the colors surrounding them.
  2. To make a warm color appear warmer, surround it with a cooler color and vice-versa.
  3. Every color has value.
  4. Afterimage, we learn to tune it out, but it's there!

Colors are affected by the colors placed next to them.

  1. All color is affected by the colors surrounding them.
  2. To make a warm color appear warmer, surround it with a cooler color.


Values are also affected by the values surrounding them!!!

Value & Color

All color has value. When you strip out the colors from an image in a program like Photoshop, it is easier to see the value of the colors. The value of color is called inherent value.

Example of inherent value

Example of inherent value

Afterimage is defined as an image appearing in one's vision after exposure to the original image has ceased.

To do this exercise, you will need a timer. You (should!) get the afterimage effect in the following few images. Some people can't see afterimages; if that is the case, don't worry. It probably means that it takes longer for your eye to get "tired," permitting you to see the afterimage.

Directions: Begin by staring at the red strip for 30 seconds. Try not to blink and keep staring at it. Perhaps staring at the rectangle's edges will help. When the timer goes off, immediately stare at the circle on the rightWhat you should see will be fleeting!

 First Afterimage example

What did you see when you looked at the black dot?

You should have seen a ghost of the rectangle, but it should appear greenish to blueish-green. This exercise demonstrates how each color is affected by the colors surrounding them.

Next, let's see how warm colors surrounding cool colors make the warm hues appear warmer, and the cool hues seem cooler.

 Directions: Begin by staring at the red strip for 30 seconds.Try not to blink and keep staring at it. Perhaps staring at the rectangle's edges will help. When the timer goes off, immediately stare at the strip on the right.


What did you see when you looked at the green rectangle?

You should have seen a ghost of the rectangle, but it should appear greenish to blueish–green, and where it overlaps the green rectangle, the ghost rectangle is brighter. This exercise demonstrates how warm colors seem warmer when surrounded by cooler colors and vice-versa.

Now let's look at an afterimage using grayscale value.

Directions: In the next slide, stare at the black box with the white square for 30 seconds. Try not to blink and keep staring at it. Then, immediately stare at the dot on the right.

Afterimage example grayscale


What did you see when you looked at the black dot?

You should have seen the black and white shape in reverse. The black will appears as a bright white, and the white will appear as a dark grey. You may even have seen the edges of the afterimage shape have a dark outline!

Value as a Design Concept

Now that you have a basic understanding of afterimage let's look at value as a design concept.

As mentioned earlier, the human eye sees around 40 different values. When using a grayscale, I use the value range of 1-10, with 10 being black and 1 being white.

Ten-step gray scale

Ten-step gray scale

When I taught design principles, I discussed how to apply "words" to your visual art.

As a professional visual artist, you will work with clients. Clients use words to explain what they want to be communicated in the final design. You need to figure out the main mood/feelings the energy level and look for the final project that will fit your client's needs.  A quick way to set up a mood and energy level in your design is through value.

The "Body Language" of Visual Arts

One way to tap into a visual mood is to think about the elements of art as body language. Experts disagree on the exact numbers, but they all agree that humans rely on more than 60 % of body language when communicating with one another. In other words, we unconsciously rely more on what we see than the words we hear when communicating.

People yelling

Imagine this couple in the image above are saying sweet, loving words in gentle voices to one another. By reading the body language, you realize what you're hearing doesn't reflect their feelings.

The same is true in visual arts. The visual elements need to support the message you wish to communicate.

The two main types of value are used in the visual arts; high contract and keys.

High Contrast Value

High contrast value come in two variations:

  1. black and white
  2. mainly black and white, with a limited amount of "other" values.

I suggest this formula for assessing high contrast; the majority of the values are 50% black and 50% white.

There can be a limited amount of "other" values included in the image, but the black and white values must be close to fifty/fifty. Note that if the design is predominantly white or black, it is no longer high contrast but is a key.

Untitled, by Carmen Herrera, 1952 (Museum of Modern Art)

In the painting by Carmen Herrera, the values being used are strictly black and white. Roughly you are seeing 50% black and 50% white, with no other values.

 Fashion photo

Photo by Chris Nicholls, for Fashion Magazine, May 2013

In the photo by photographer Chris Nicholls, the majority of the values are either black and white, but there are some limited "other" values. Black and white must remain the two dominant values.

High Contrast Value Energy Level and Feelings

High contrast has a lot of energy which can create a lot of movement. There are additional compositional elements that you can use to create movement, such as rhythm, texture, high-energy shapes, etc., but you can create movement strictly using high contrast value.

Consider how afterimages are created by the significant contrasts of pure black and white values and how they add to this value's energy.

The types of feelings you can achieve with high contrast are; electric, intense, chaos, etc. Note that these descriptive words express high energy. These words are not the only words that can apply to high contrast values. High contrast won't disappoint you if you need a lot of energy in a design!


Keys are a great design tool to set up a mood/feeling. Keys are high, medium, or low.

The energy level of keys is usually low. A lot of movement across the composition is not the main criteria when working with keys. If you need a high-energy piece, it's best to stick with high contrast (of course, there are always exceptions!).

Often you will find only High Keys and Low Keys in most books on design. The approach when eliminating the middle key is a bit different than the approach discussed here. I like working with the medium key as I often see it used in many paintings.

Keys have less energy than High Contrast values because they have a limited dominant value range.

Keys have a dominant value range, but there needs to be a limited amount of "other values." Including some of the "other values" to add areas of definition is essential. Without this definition, the value runs the risk of being flat, giving the eye nothing to latch onto.

The formula I recommend for keys is 75% or more of the dominant values and 25% or less of the other values.

Photo of a foggy day

I can only imagine how difficult it was driving out in the county the day this photo was taken!

You need to include a limited amount of "other values" to add small areas of definition. Without these small areas of definition, the value can become "flat," leaving nothing of interest for the eye to lock onto. When this happens, the viewer spends little time looking through the piece and moves on. Also, the "other values" can assist in creating movement across the picture plane.

High Keys

High Keys are mainly values 1-4. The feeling associated: sunny, floating, happy, etc.

Example of a high key in color and its' grayscale. The Cathedrals of Art, by Florine Stettheimer, 1942 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Medium Keys

Medium Keys use mainly values 4-7. Feeling associated: uncertain, foggy sad, etc.

 Medium Key example

After seeing the piece above in color, which uses warm and cool colors, the grayscale version lack definition and vibrancy. It happens due to the warm and cool colors affecting one another. I address this concept in the blog on using warm and cool colors.

Low Keys

Low Keys mainly uses values 7-10.  The feeling associated: mysterious, moody, creepy, etc.

Christopher Shiels
Photo courtesy of British photographer, Christopher Shiels

The example above is an excellent example of how we need small areas of "other values" in a key. Because there are very light values in the sky edging around the trees, we can make out that they are trees! The same is true with the water. If the water in the center of the photo were close in value range, like the values in the area on the far left ( just below the oak tree), we would have difficulty sorting out the image and quickly dismiss the piece.

In the painting Streetlight, the artist Constance Coleman Richardson wisely applies "other values" to create the focal point.

Streetlight, by Constance Coleman Richardson, 1930 (Newfields)

As with high contrast value, the words I have applied to keys are not a definitive list. They are a guide. Also, remember that once you understand how to make this concept work, you can and should break the rules!

The piece below, by the Chicago artist Ed Paschke, is an excellent example of the artist playing with the "rules."

The subject is a smiling face, using bright, pure colors. These colors are often found in illustrations used in children's books marketed to ages two through five. The twist Paske uses a low-key value, which creates a creepy feeling!

Note that the pure colors are often darker in value than most people would guess when viewing the colored image only.

Ed - low key
Caliente, by Ed Paschke, 1985 (The Art Institue of Chicago)



Credits: Some of the information in this presentation comes from the book Design Basics, Seventh Edition by David Lauer

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