Learn from Michelle

Value vs. Color

Value is one of the basic tenets of art. It refers to how light or dark a color is. 

For example, white is the lightest value and black is the darkest value.

Another way to think of it - and the way most photographers find the simplest - is to think of Ansel Adams's zone system.  It covers all the values from black to white. If you want the full geek explanation of the zone system, you can find it here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_System.

If we take the zone system as value only, it ranges from white to black like this...

By applying a single color (in this case red), we can get an entire range of values of the single color...

As digital artists, why should we care about value?

Understanding that a single color can come in many values becomes valuable knowledge as we begin to accentuate our paintings.

One other important component of understanding value is realizing that surrounding values can affect our perception of what we see.

Huh? (I know - this sounds hard, but I'm here to help!)

Let me ask you a question - which part of this "stone" has the darker value...

The top?

The bottom?

What say you???

What if I said, the value -- top and bottom -- are actually identical?  Would you believe me?

It's absolutely true! 

If you think this is some sort of photoshop trick, scroll back up and cover the black/white lines in the center of the "stone" with your fingers.  You'll be able to see then that the top and bottom are IDENTICAL in value.

This trick of the eye is caused by the black and white gradient and the difference in value between the "sky" and the "grass".

Even when we eliminate the sky and grass and go to only solid colors, this optical illusion persists...

So what's my point?

One of the common misconceptions in Photoshop painting is that to accentuate a painting, you just add white or black paint.  While it is true this will change the value, is it really the best choice?

Let's look at adding white versus adding different values of existing colors.

This is the original photograph courtesy of Barbara Breitsameter...

I did a quick painting of this image without adding any extra "umph"...

When I get a painting like this for critique, I generally tell the maker to go back and add some additional highlights.  This typically results in novice painters starting something like this...

And then they proceed to blend those bright white highlights into the existing work...

By isolating the blending layer, you can see how white these highlights really are...

Blending in white to create highlights isn't horrible per se, but what if there were a better way?

If you remember my posts on the Photoshop color picker, you'll recall that I spent a good bit of time explaining the value line.  Don't remember the post?  Click here for a refresher...


If we select the current highlight color and then follow along the value line, you'll end up with a MUCH more pleasing result! If you're really brave - you can select a color from the background and find a value slightly higher than the value of the existing highlights and you'll instantly create a more cohesive painting by pulling the background colors into your highlights.

If we isolate the highlight layer in this version, you can see that by using the value and existing colors, it is much more in line with our existing painting...

Now let's compare the white highlights with the value/color highlights side by side.  Notice how I pulled some of the green tones from the background into the highlights.  It's a subtle difference, but one that matters!

Again - the white isn't horrible, but by using the existing colors and pulling a few colors from the background and using the values of the existing highlights as a clue for the color to pick we can instantly make the painting more cohesive.

Next time you get ready to push your highlights and shadows a bit, think more along the lines of the value/color scale instead of adding white and black. 

Happy painting!

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