Contol Your Values — A Lesson from the Sphere

I’ve been drawing a lot and thinking about form more than ever. I have found myself almost obsessing about it lately. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we as pictorial artists must control the values we utilize in order to convey three-dimensionality. I know, you’ve heard this a million times, and so have I. The key word here is CONTROL. I don’t mean we must just have the facility to apply the values in the same way we see them. I mean we must not just be a slave to what we see but have CONTROL over how we apply our values in order to more STRONGLY CONVEY what we see. We must not just be copyists — like a camera. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. Years ago I was quite content with my photo-like pictures. Even the ones I painted from life. But time went on, I developed and so did my sensibilities.

The more I teach, the more I have realized how I change what I actually see in my picture to make it more real. To give my forms more solidity. More volume. More “realness”.

Now for many artists, even realists, this is not going to be as important as it is to me. Because of photography many would-be realist painters have forgotten (or never learned) the fundamentals of pictorial expression. We don’t know what we don’t know. So we relegate ourselves to becoming “photo-realists” instead of realists. If you don’t know the difference, you will, if you continue to study light and form. (I know there may be a discrepancy here with the term “realist”. I’m not talking about the realism of Courbet and those guys. I’m talking about a naturalistic realism in our approach to painting our subjects.) The longer I paint, the more I loathe a photographic quality to my work. I want something more. (BTW — I don’t loathe photorealism as an artistic genre. Chuck Close is still a hero of mine. In this post I’m purely concerned with my own painting)

Okay, back to values and control. Here is an exercise you can do to help you in your understanding and control of values. When I paint any object I have become increasingly conscious of assigning my relative values to particular categories. I have adopted a 7 value system that makes sense to me and is not too complicated. It gives more leeway than merely 5 values, and is simpler than a 9 or 10 value scale.

Below I have applied my value system to drawing a sphere. The categories of values are as follows:

1. Darkest dark, or dark accent. This is the dark value where the sphere comes in contact with the table. This area is receiveing little or no light.

2. General form shadow and cast shadow.

3. Reflected light.

4. Half tone. This is the transitional value in my form as it turns away from the light into shadow. It’s STILL in the light. It’s just darker because it’s not receiving much light. Note, this value is lighter than my reflected light value. In this way I keep the light side of the form separate from the dark side of the form. There is a clear light side, and a clear dark side. Poor handling of half tones and reflected light values is one of the most common problems I encounter in the learning realist.

5. Average light. The overall average value of the light side of the form.

6. Light light. The planes of the form most perpendicular to the light source.

7. Highlight, or Specular light. This is the little mirror-like catch light we see on many forms. In the drawing this is the white of the paper.

Before I drew my sphere I did a couple of value strip exercises to help me quantify my values.

First, I marked out seven inch-wide boxes and filled in the first value as dark as I wanted to go. I am using Strathmore series 400 drawing paper with graphite pencils HB through 8B.

Now I have my extreme values — darkest dark, and lightest light. I began slowly building up the other values in order to control their relationships. I did very little if any erasing here. Also, I don’t prefer to use any blending tools (I’ve always enjoyed the pebbly texture of the paper as well as visible hatching).

You will notice I did a second strip where I tried to create a seamless transition between values. In doing this strip I constantly referenced the strip above in order to help me not go too dark or light at any point along the value range. This second strip was just more fun for me and an exercise to see how well I could control the gradation of values. Okay, so I’m a control freak. Really, though, I want to be the master of my tools. Not the other way around.

Finally I used the value scale as described and quantified above to make a three dimensional image. The sphere. This was done without any reference. I simply used my knowledge of value, light and shade. I know it’s not scientifically perfect, but it conveys a convincing three dimensional form.

I have found that consciously organizing my values has really helped to give my forms more solidity. I often edit what is actually in front of me using the information above. It’s still a journey and I don’t feel I’ve quite mastered it, but I feel I’m at least on firm footing and have a good idea of where I’m going. Note that in using my 7 value scale, I’m not really thinking of the different numbers of values in a strict quantitative way. I’m thinking of them in terms of relativity. I don’t say to myself, “well, that looks like a value 3, or maybe a value 4”. No, instead I say to myself, “that reflected light value needs to go darker, because right now it’s competing with my half tone”. See the difference?

Be aware that these are general principles and can be broken if and when appropriate. They are mostly going to apply with a single strong light source situation. Its still good to have this understanding if you enjoy flat light or diffused light environments, but the value relationships will play out differently.

I highly recommend reading, or re-reading chapter 5 from Tony Ryder’s book, which will reinforce these ideas about value, light and shadow. Much of what I have written here is derivative of what I learned there, and other places.

You can also practice this exercise with monochromatic oil paint (or any other media).

Below are some images of paintings where this knowledge is applied, to more or less a degree. Note that the reflected light value on each of these examples in kept under control.




I encourage the learning pictorial artist to identify the lighting conditions of any painting you are viewing. Many beginners lack this elementary understanding. A way to develop this sensibility and understanding of light is to now go back to your favorite paintings and think about the light. Is it a single strong light source? Diffused outdoor light? A combination? Other options? How is the artist manipulating the value relationships in the painting to convey to you the character of the light? Obviously this exercise is only going to work with paintings completed with a naturalistic sensibility. Don’t try to do this with a Dali.

6 thoughts on “Contol Your Values — A Lesson from the Sphere”

  1. This is great! I’ve been struggling to find a simple explanation of how to better use value to achieve realism and this is it. Thank you so much.


  2. most “basic” art instruction deals w/light/dark, black/white, charcoal/pencil. Translating values into color is the Problem??
    the transfer was interesting. Cliff Givens


  3. Being a late-comer to art, I’ve often struggled pinpointing the aspect of well-executed paintings that is immensely satisfying to me, and why hyper realism isn’t.

    As a harpist, I can only put this in terms of music. The most important direction or quality in instrumental music that one can ever encounter is “cantabile,” or “singing.” Whatever lovely and unique quality there might be in the sound of each instrument, it must always seek to imitate the human voice. That’s why we play our solos in such a way that the phrasing is similar to how it would be sung by a vocalist. That’s why professors tell their students who are struggling with the quality of their phrasing to sing along as they play, so their tonal quality can match the voice. That’s why instrumentalists that don’t need to “come up” for air still write in breath marks into their phrasing. The most interesting sound to the human mind, since birth, is the human voice.

    So in a similar fashion, some portrait artists forget that the gold standard we aim for is not a photograph of the individual; the standard is the individual him or herself, in person, with all the qualities, personality, and “je ne sais quoi” that cannot be captured on a negative.

    I’ve seen artists do this through fantastic control of value, as you have put. I’ve seen college students turn out the most romantic image of their model, simply by manipulation of line, accentuating the more geometric features of the face. Your post is a great reminder that we, as portrait artists, are not trying to achieve the quality of the photograph as the pinnacle of artistic ability; we are trying to achieve a semblance of the person and soul themselves, as they stand before us. Such can only be done through mastery of tools (something you are further along on the continuum than your self-assessments would lead you to believe). For proof of this, one need only stand in front of a work from one of the Dutch masters. There’s such a quality of these works that the most lay admirer of art feels that they “know this person.” They don’t simply know how they appear… they can see their soul so assuredly as if the subject had been sitting next to them, speaking for hours, instead of turning to dust in a pinewood box, centuries away.


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