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Part 1: The value of values

values Feb 02, 2021

If you haven't heard the term 'values' used in watercolour before - I'm gonna give you a crash course in the next 4 posts! We'll chat about what they are, why we need them, what happens when we ignore them, how to make a value chart and conduct a value study for yourself.

Values in watercolour are a range or scale of tones, lightest to darkest. Think of white and black then aaaaall the shades of grey that would fall in between.

You know how when you see a black and white photo - you can still tell exactly what or who is in the photo, even though there's no colour? Values are SO important for this reason! Value is out here doing all the heavy lifting, while colour is getting all the accolades. (Reminds me of university group assignments...)

Take this photo of the world's most beautiful dog (totally unbiased opinion) for example. How many shades can you see? Probably a tonne! Analyse what are the darkest parts and what are the lightest parts. These are things we would have to keep in mind if recreating this photo with watercolour.

See how the bottom right of the sky looks lighter than the very top of the sky? This tells me that the sun is shining in the bottom right, further confirmed by the right side of Rhodie's face being lighter than the left. Being lighter while low to the horizon also indicates a sunrise or sunset. Cool huh? These are things I may not necessarily have noticed if I was working from a colour photo because bright and saturated colours can be very distracting and lead us to paint down too many layers where something should be kept lighter.

If you've heard someone talk about "preserving the white" of the paper, this is what that refers to: honouring where the light values are. It's really hard to get that brightness back after putting a layer of any colour down, even a 'light' one. Small highlights can be added on top later with white gouache or similar, but a big area in the background like a sky can become dulled down if we try that.

When we paint from a reference photo in TWA I always include a black and white version of the photo for this reason. Getting our values correct in a painting can mean we can make something look realistic while not perfectly true to colour. We could paint everything rainbow colours if we wanted! Or monochromatic! As long as the values are correct, it'll still look like what it is.

See you in Part 2!