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What is tonal value in art?

by Ellie Jakeman July 28, 2022

What is tonal value in art?


What is Tonal Value in Art?

'Tonal Value' or 'Value' in Art, is part of a family of visual components which make up the 'Elements of Art'. They can be used singularly or in conjunction with each other to create visual art; a painting, print, photograph, pattern, design or sculpture.

Tonal value plays a huge part within the Elements of Art, so we will spend more time explaining what it is and how it is used.

The Seven Elements of Art:

Line, shape, colour, value, space, form, and texture. These seven elements are the fundamental components in which we create the illusion of space and form, movement or pattern. They are also the means in which we describe or critique all art forms.


An element of art defined by a point moving in space, usually where its length is greater than its width. A line may be two or three dimensional, descriptive, implied or abstract. It can be broken to imply texture or pattern, curved and languid to suggest a shape or movement, horizontal, vertical or diagonal to suggest structure, geometry or simply define a form. Line is used to create a structure for your composition, or use line as a foundation for your drawing studies, sketches and paintings. Line in sketching is used as a preliminary rehearsal and tool to study a subject before the painting or final drawings begin. Many artists will begin with drawing studies using line to describe their subjects, altering the quality of a line can create a descriptive story.

Below is an example of one of the greatest artists and draftsmen of all time, Leonardo da Vinci! Da Vinci studied several fields of science, he studied anatomy to better understand the structure of the human body; bone structures, muscles, veins, and skin. He studied physics to learn how the light reflects off a subject, and he studied chemistry to create the perfect paints.

Da Vinci filled more than seven thousand notebook pages with his sketches and notes, the power of his observation and thoughts captured on paper.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of head for Leda and the Swan (1506)


An element of art that is two-dimensional, flat, or limited to its height and width and are usually defined by lines. They can be organic and come from nature or geometric with mathematical names such as square, circle, rectangle, triangle, etc. Or they can be totally abstract and amorphic in appearance.

Andy Warhol, transformed an ordinary botanical photograph into a series of monumental silk screen images. His clever use of flattened shapes created a repeat pattern across the 10 large canvases when viewed together. Changing and developing different vibrant colour ways he created a technicolour series of prints.

Andy Warhol, 'Flowers' (1970)


Form define objects in space. Forms exist in three dimensions, with height, width, and depth. Sculpture and architecture has an actual form where as two-dimensional pieces; paintings and printed images can have the illusion of form when the artist uses strategies such as perspective or uses value scales to model a form.

Paul Cézanne sculptured his painted forms with both directional brush strokes, daubs of paint and the use of value in colour. It is clear to see his deliberate brush strokes building up his almost geometric shapes.

Paul Cézanne Still life,' Pitcher and Fruit' (1894)


While actual space is three-dimensional, Space referred to in a painting, drawing or photograph refers to a feeling of depth or three dimensional space. Space in a work of art can also refer to the artist's use of the area within the picture plane. The area around the primary objects in a work of art is known as negative space, while the space occupied by the primary objects is known as positive space. Negative space is always a huge consideration to the artists when creating the composition. Space in surface pattern becomes an integral part of the design.

Andrew Wyeth was a master of creating space in his vast desolate landscapes. Within the painting 'Christina's World' Wyeth uses an elevated horizon, with small distant buildings and a wide open painted meadow to depict space around the central figure. The proportion of negative space around the figure provides us with an emotional and visual tension. We can make up our own narratives for this image or as Wyeth's wife described the painting as more of a 'psychological landscape' than a portrait, 'a portrayal of a state of mind', rather than a place. Anna Christine Olsen was actually Wyeth's neighbour who suffered from a muscle wasting condition, but refused a wheelchair.

 Andrew Wyeth, 'Christina's World' (1948), MOMA, New York


There are three different components to colour, Hue which is the name of the colour, Intensity/Saturation, which refers to the quality of brightness and purity, or richness and vividness. High intensity would mean the colour is bright and has a strong saturation. Low intensity would mean the colour is dull and faint. Lastly Value: Hues lightness and darkness, a colour's value changes when white or black is added, also when other hues are mixed this may alter the value.

In Bridget Riley's painting 'Nataraja' 1993, we see Riley using complex colour relationships. 'Nataraja' is a term used in Hindu mythology, which means 'Lord of the Dance'. Contrast, proportion, value and saturation is very carefully considered and planned out for each hue, creating a visual dance on canvas.

 Bridget Riley, 'Nataraja' (1993)  © Bridget Riley 2018. All rights reserved.


'Value' or 'Tonal Value' is the lightness or darkness of tones or colours. The luminance or luminosity of a colour. All hues can have a value scale from dark to light. Some pigments like Zinc White are already classed as having a light value, whilst other pigments such as Mars Black are classed as having a dark value. Lightening the Value of a colour would entail adding a white pigment to the original hue, this is called a tint, adding a lot of white would render the colour cooler and turn it into a pastel colour.

To darken the Value of a colour or hue, you could add black, this is known as a shade. Whilst adding grey to a hue would dim the original colour and possibly alter its value, but not always, this is called a tone. A little test you could do, to develop your understanding of value, would be to create a 12 colour wheel chart, then photograph it and change it to black and white, this will help you understand the underlying value your colour has, without changing or altering its original value.

Some would argue that 'Value' in art is more important than colour, as value can be used to create a focal point within a painting or drawing. This is achieved by painting a light value against a dark value, when using the lightest value against the darkest value would be called Chiaroscuro, which we will discuss later. Value can also create the illusion of depth by using a gradation of value to describe distance, darker in the foreground and cooler and lighter in the distance. Within a composition areas of light and dark give a three-dimensional illusion of form to an object or multiple forms.

There are other ways to adjust the colour without necessarily altering the value. Adding grey to a hue will alter the intensity of a colour, but not necessarily alter its value. Adding grey is usually referred to as creating a tone. Adding complimentary colours to each other will neutralise the colour and alter the hue and possibly the value depending how much you use in proportion to each other. For example if you add a small amount of blue to an orange pigment you will get a slightly darker orange, if you add a lot of blue to an orange pigment you will create a dark brown and possibly darken the value. Creating tonal value charts before commencing a painting can be invaluable in the success of the composition.

White is the lightest value in a painting or photograph and black is the darkest. The value halfway between these extremes is called middle grey. Value is best understood when visualised as a chart or a gradient scale or when referred to as Tonal Value. A Gradient scale usually illustrates a subtle change of values gradually moving from light to dark or dark to light.

Value can be totally independent of hue and many oil painters and visual artists begin their paintings using a 'Grisaille' method, where the entire painting is done entirely in values of grey first. Hues are added to the painting in glazes over this underpainting. Some artists will create a monochromatic underpainting, purely to map out the values within the composition first. This kind of preparation can ensure that your composition has a harmonic, and balanced light and dark value range.

A painting, photograph or drawing, can have multiple tonal values, rendering a subject extremely three dimensional and providing more detail, or an image could only a few tonal values or have three values, high key, mid tones and dark values, rendering the subject more illustrative, rather than photo realistic.

In Pablo Picasso's Anti-war masterpiece 'Guernica' 1937, he depicts in great detail the bloody attack with shades of black, white and shades of grey. The visual impact is shocking and thought provoking, no red paint used or needed to explain the atrocity.

Pablo Picasso, 'Guernica' (1937)

Using Value in art can create the illusion of a strong light source; its direction and its intensity. Using only a dark value placed directly against a light value in a painting can create a strong contrast or high contrast which is known as Chiaroscuro. The Master artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio favoured this style of painting to highlight drama and realism in his famous paintings. Beautifully contrived, his paintings were a revelation in style and dramatic illumination.

Caravaggio, 'Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness' (1604/1605)

 There are also many very famous paintings that use Mid and Low value compositions. Claude Monet famously created many works of art painted with a colour palette with similar values, such as his iconic Water Lilies painting. 1905, here we see the colours are vivid and rich in saturation but they are all mostly the same value. Proving a tapestry of rich painted hues, work effortlessly and in harmony with each other. Monet's understanding of light and dark values, shades, and subtle low contrast values, work to create the illusion of light kissing every part of the canvas. A full range of low key values that actually identify light!

Claude Monet, 'Water Lilies' (1905) 

Claude Monet, 'The Water Lily Pond' (1899)

What is a Value Scale?

A Value scale is a way of describing how values change between black and white. The most common Scale and still used today was developed by Denman Ross and is know as the nine step value scale. He was a professor of Art at Harvard University and a trustee of the Museum of fine Arts in Boston. Many artists use this system.

How to create your own tonal value finder to aid composition and identify where on the value scale a colour falls.

This scale is an extremely helpful tool for visual artists and painters who wish to identify and plan to include specific proportions of light colour values, mid-tones and dark values within their compositions. If working from a coloured photograph, turning it into a black and white photograph will allow you to identify the different values. Taking black and white photographs of your work as you progress through your painting will also help you identify the correct tonal ranges.

Values that are referred to as High Key colours are those nearest the lightest part of the spectrum where those referred to as Low Key are found at the darker end of the spectrum.


How to create a Denman Ross Value Scale (a nine step value scale)

The way to create a nine step value scale is as follows:

  • start with white and black at either end of your nine value scale White (lightest Value) Black (darkest Value)

  • mix a medium grey which is visually halfway between white and black (Middle Value)

  • mix a dark grey halfway between the mid grey and black (Dark)

  • mix a light grey halfway between the mid grey and white (Light)

  • create four intermediate greys at a value midway between each of the values you have so far

The interval between each value in the scale should be equal.

If you are new to creating tonal ranges start off with creating an achromatic scale in your favourite medium, then progress onto creating value scales in different mediums for as many hues as you can.


Ellie Jakeman
Ellie Jakeman

I have had a strong interest in the visual and creative arts since a very early age. After completing an Art and Design Degree and Post graduate studies I have taught Art and Design, Fashion and Textiles, Textile design , Fine Art print and Illustration for over 20 years. Before teaching I was a freelance artist and illustrator and decided 4 years ago I would return to freelance and commissioned work. I have created many domestic and commercial murals for hospitals and hospices. I work part time for ARTdiscount as a content creator and product tester.

2 Responses


August 03, 2023

I enjoyed this blog about tonal values and would value a more in depth demo on creating colour tonal values as I am working towards understanding this better to help for plein air sketching and painting this articulate was very helpful regards Steve

Michelle Reynolds
Michelle Reynolds

August 23, 2022

Hi, really enjoyed reading this blog. I feel inspired to test myself a bit and experiment with tones more.
Thank you!

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