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Part 3: The value of values

values Feb 02, 2021

We've now covered what 'values' are in watercolour, why we need them, what things can look like if we get them wrong... and now it's time to learn about value charts!

What is a value chart?

A scale created with watercolour, showing the range of tones a particular colour can achieve from dark to light (or light to dark).

It can be ruled up neatly like the one below, or you can just freehand some swatches! You could paint them any shape you want, as long as the tone is changing with each one.

There's no right or wrong when it comes to how many squares/swatches you'll need. Some colours have a HUGE tonal range and you'll be able to get tonnes of differing values out of them, others will only have a few.

At first I recommend trying to see how many you can squeeeeeze out of a colour just for your own experimentation, but when creating a final chart to keep as a reference, around 5 is perfect. A dark tone, a mid-tone, a light tone and then one on either side of the mid. This isn't an exact science, you'll have to judge it by eye, but for a value chart of 5 you can think of it as roughly:

  • 1) Darkest - 100% colour
  • 2) 75%
  • 3) 50% (mid-tone)
  • 2) 25%
  • 1) Lightest - 1% colour

What is a value chart used for?

Before we get stuck into the how, what is the actual point of this - besides something satisfying to look at?

Here's a few things they're good for:

  • finding out the range of tones possible from one colour - we don't just have to paint the most saturated version of it! Values give us more options from just 1 colour
  • helping us choose the correct tones for our painting
  • learning individual characteristics of a colour/pigment
  • creating better contrast in our paintings
  • water control
  • helping us create more realistic and dimensional paintings
  • better informing our highlights and shadows

It's actually a lot more than just some pretty swatches! It's also a fantastic exercise for beginners who need to work on their water control and learn more about their colours. By getting familiar with how much 'watering down' a colour may need, you'll improve your mixing.

How to make a value chart:

  • Load up your brush with as much colour as possible. This will be your darkest value. Paint a swatch down
  • Then, dip just the tip of your brush in your water jar (don't swish) and paint another swatch down
  • If you accidentally rinsed off too much colour and notice a huge difference between two swatches and believe there would be other values in between, add a little more colour to your brush and manually adjust the swatch (I had to do this for the chart above!)
  • Repeat this until your swatches run almost clear - that'll be your lightest swatch

This is a great little exercise, but may not be practical for *every* colour in your collection. So if you're just wanting a quick overview of a few values you can get from each of your colours, try to aim for 5 differing ones :)

See you in the finale, part 4!