How a value sketch will make for a better painting

The benefits of value sketching prior to starting any painting are significant, both in terms of time saved and avoided stress.

When we think of watercolor painting, we don’t necessarily associate pencils and sketching with it. However, value sketching is an extremely valuable tool. By doing a quick value sketch before you pick up your paintbrush, you set yourself up for success later down the line. 

In fact, this is why people say that "Color gets the credit, but value does the work." It means that while we respond emotionally to colors, it is the values in a painting that make it possible for the human eye to understand what it’s looking at. If the values don't allow us to distinguish sky from water, a house from the trees around it or a person against a wall, it doesn't matter which colors were used. People will be confused when they look at your painting and it will not feel right.

Key Takeaways

1. Value sketching is a sketch that focuses on drawing the light and dark shapes of a subject.

2. Understanding the values of your subject is essential as it helps viewers understand your artwork.

3. A key benefit of completing a value sketch is that it will give you a solid foundation for your work and save you much time and stress in the long run.

What is value sketching?

Value sketching is creating a simple sketch that focuses on drawing the light, mid-tone and dark shapes of a subject. Think of it as creating a black-and-white photo of your subject. The difference is that you can adjust the values in your sketch by making some areas darker or lighter and thereby improve on the visual readability of your painting. By creating a value sketch before painting, you give yourself a roadmap to reference as you go. 

Methods for Value Sketching

If you haven’t done a value sketch before, start with three values on your value key. On your paper, draw three boxes off to the side. Shade one box in with very dark, heavy strokes to create a black. In the next box, use a lighter hand to produce a grey shade. Leave the last box empty for your white. These are your three values: extremely light (white), mid-tone (gray), and dark (black). 

3-tone value scale

Once you have your value key, you can move onto the sketch. Whatever your subject matter is, remember that the goal is to create a simple version of your painting using only these three values. This doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact it's best if you concentrate on the largest shapes in your subject. For example, if you're painting a brick house, assign only one or two values for each wall, rather than distinguish each brick. 

To determine each value, notice where the light is hitting your subject. This will naturally be the lightest value. The shadows will be your mid and dark tones. If you're unsure about what value to assign, it helps to squint.

Final Thoughts

Once you’ve completed your sketch, you’re ready to paint! 

Surprisingly enough, colors that appear light or dark aren't always as dark or light as we think.  So, when choosing a color for your painting, look at it against a mid-tone grey to determine its value.  This is why I like to paint watercolors on a gray towel, or use a grey paper palette when I paint with acrylics.  It makes it easy to determine the relative values of the colors as I paint. My work follows its own rules when I use color, so being able to accurately determine a color's value is key to making a painting work.

Also, as you move from wash to wash, it helps to take a photo of your work on your phone and to turn it into a black and white image. This will give you an immediate sense of whether your values work and it will save you some disappointments down the line.

For example, I wanted to do a painting with only blue and its complement, orange. I confess that I didn't start with a value sketch (!!!). My excuse is that I knew that out of the tube, blue is dark (I used DS Phthalo Blue) and orange is mid tone (yes, who would have thought). And I planned to use negative painting for the whites.

I did a couple of washes and I was ready to call my painting done, but then I took a picture and turned it into b&w. 

Orange with blue vase by Sylvie Peltier (Esspé) unfinished
Is it done?

Orange with blue vase by Sylvie Peltier (Esspé) unfinished in B&W
Not quite done!

In the colored version I liked that the flowers and the wall were light, but when I looked at the b&w photo, I saw immediately that I still had to do another wash. The flowers were getting lost in the wall, to the extent that they almost looked stamped on it! 

I'm still mulling how I will finish this painting. I know the shadow side of the orange needs to be darker as well, but I'm concerned that if I apply blue to the back of the orange I will end up with a muddy color (since I will essentially be adding blue to red+yellow).

What do you think? Do you create value sketches before you paint?  

If you want to see value sketching in action, check out our YouTube video on value sketching with Arts of Course instructor Jess Rice.

Interested in learning more?

Register for our FREE mini course “Watercolor Techniques: How to develop your own painting style.” 

Categories: : Watercolor Techniques, Watercolor tips