How to learn to see the value in colors

  • This is not my forte, and it wouldn't be much of an issue for me if I was working strictly in digital. I usually make a value layer and paint over it, and it seems to work out well - however - when I paint traditionally, I cannot see the values in the colors themselves. I am value blind (I made that up, but it might catch on). My brother says it takes time to see it, and to just keep painting, but I wonder if there is a trick anyone here knows to seeing those values. I am trying to stick to a limited palet, because it is much easier using the color itself to create values rather than individual colors setting the tone, if that even makes sense.


  • Man, this is something I want to learn as well!

    I know James Gurney recommends doing monotone value studies ("wash drawings") from life/masters. Once you've gotten the hang of that, it's supposed to be easier to move into color.

    I'm still in the monotone stage at this point, so it sounds like you're ahead of me! 😛

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    It is not as simple as they make it sound, for sure. I was "value blind" (I like that!) in the mid-range for a long while. And I really struggled with the way value differences appear more prominent (to me) in the very dark range than in the very light range.
    I would tend to say it just takes a lot of practice, a lot of looking at other pictures, at the world and at photographs. It gets better - I have definitely not stopped learning, but it does come more natural now. When I worked in oil and pastel, I always did a "grisaille" - a monochromatic version of the painting (usually in sepia) before painting in color over it - it is how the masters worked. There is an artist who does that with watercolor too, Justin Gerard (but he does switch to digital in the end).
    One trick that may help you is to make a "red lens". Buy some transparent red foil and glue it to a cardboard frame, about 2 or 3 inches big. Whatever you look at through the red foil looses all color information - you only see the value relations. It is darker than the real values, but the relationship is intact. It is quite fun to walk around with it. (It is a James Gurney trick, BTW.)

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    @Tyson-Ranes No idea....probably yes! I bought some red foil - costs about 50 cents for one sheet...

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    @smceccarelli I remember doing that in my watercolor class bu tforgot! I need to get th at so I can use it with my book pages! Thanks for the reminder and for this thread as I am thinking of beginning the coloring process for my pages.....I'm a bot out of practice with watercolor but signed up for the local Community College course, and one in creative writing to supplement what I am learning here 🙂 It will be good for me to interct with some live face to face humans too.

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    Another simpler way is to take a pic and run it through a B&W filter. I am sure there are some apps for the iPhone that do that....;-)

  • @smceccarelli It's those mid-tones, and the very soft gradients/transitions that are the most difficult to for me to grasp for sure! I've been doing studies from Charles Bargue and John Vanderpoel drawings, and even with such excellent guides I have a long way to go (how will I ever manage from life?)... 😛

    Gerard has a very interesting process. And I love the James Gurney trick! Going to have to make one of those value viewfinder things and bring it out sketching.

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    @Eric-Castleman Here is a Sycra video that might be interesting - i know you are not talking about digital but this video helps explain a phenomena that happens when going from gray scale to color that i found useful
    here is another one too.

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