Understanding the principles behind value and contrast is crucial for any artist. They are the backbone of any drawing or painting, providing the raw data necessary to give form to your subject.
...without them, you may as well be staring at a blank page.
If you have a ball at hand, put it on a white surface so the shadows are visible and use it as a reference to see how the direction of the light source affects the values.
Values: Highlights, Mid-tones, and Shadows
Values are the different tones that can be seen on any object with some light bouncing off it.
You can have an infinite range of tones, but it's best to start with three: a highlight, a mid-tone, and a shadow tone.
With three tones, drawing and shading should be reasonably straightforward. However, our eyes and brain can process this information infinitely faster, so three tones will quickly feel highly limiting, especially for rounded objects:
Experiment with different shades of grey you can get with your pencil. The white of your paper should be your lightest tone, and the darkest black is the darkest shadow.
Tip: Try squinting while looking at your object if you find it difficult to separate the tones. It helps filter out unnecessary details and allows you to pick out the lightest and darkest areas.
Bonus Tip: Reflected light is the light bouncing off the surface (i.e. the table or sheet of paper your sphere is on) hitting the underside of your sphere. This means that the bottom of your sphere isn’t entirely in shadow. Reflected light creates a more dynamic and realistic 3D effect, though it should be a mid-tone, not a highlight.
Contrast goes hand-in-hand with value because it's the range of tones used in a drawing.
A wider range means a greater contrast. You can manipulate the contrast depending on how much you want the object to "pop" out of the page and how bright your light source is.
For example, going back to the sphere, you can make your brightest highlight brighter and darkest shadows darker for high contrast. This definitely makes the sphere pop, especially if you get rid of almost all the mid-tones.
For lower contrast, darken the highlights and lighten the shadows so that the sphere looks somewhat all grey. This effect is best to indicate a low light source or the subject is in the dark.
Tip: To play around with contrast and value even more, try drawing on toned paper, which can be a grey or brown tone. For your highlights, you'll need a white coloured pencil or conté crayon.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for a hugely complex part of art. For example, we can easily increase complexity by adding multiple light sources add another dimension when using complimentary colours.
Ultimately, careful observation of your subject, along with diligent practice, will be the most helpful.
Ready to give this a go? If you're struggling to get the correct values and contrast in your artwork, don't worry; you're not alone. Here are some tips to help you out:
Start with a basic object - a sphere is a great place to start because it's easy to see the values and contrast.
Use references - take photos or use real-life objects to help you understand the values and contrast. Observation is key.
Practice, practice, practice - the more you do it, the easier it will become.
Take breaks - don't overwork yourself, take breaks often to prevent eye strain and fatigue.
Want to keep on learning? You can also check out some of our popular classes on Value and Contrast (by order of difficulty):
- Introduction to Drawing - Learn how to draw from scratch in this 6-class course.
- Building Shadows - Creating Depth and Space through Graphite Pencils - Apply value, shadows, and texture to a fruit with nothing but a pencil in this 90min class.
- Surreal Portraits - Construction through Colour and Value - Translate value to colour and build a portrait in this 90min class.
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Author: Nicola Tsoi