Value and contrast. The backbone of any drawing or painting is found in these not-so-basic basics. They are essential to giving form to your subject. They pretty much make up the “raw data” of art because, without them, you may as well be looking at a blank page. 

Even something as simple as an outline needs contrast to see (i.e. your grey pencil line contrasts with the white paper). It is why it’s so important to understand the principle behind adding value and contrast. 

Values: Highlights, Mid-tones, and Shadows

Values are basically the different tones that can be seen on any object with at least some light bouncing off it. You can have an infinite range of tones (think every shade of grey between black and white); however, I recommend you start with three for basics – a highlight, a mid-tone, and a shadow tone. 

To keep it simple, let’s begin with a sphere. If you have a ball handy, use it to see how the direction of the light source affects the values. Put it on a white surface, so the shadows are clearly visible.

With three tones, drawing and shading should be reasonably straightforward. Group all the highlights into one highlight, the mid-tones to a single mid-tone, and so on. Here, I’ve “swatched” my tones using a B pencil, which is always good as a reference to keep your tones consistent.

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.

You’ll notice right away that the lightest area faces the direction of your light source, and the darkest area is in the cast shadow and on the sphere itself, on the side that faces away from the light. 

Of course, our eyes and brain can process this information infinitely faster, so three tones will definitely feel highly limiting very quickly, especially for rounded objects! If you find this exercise too easy, divide your tones into seven instead.

Experiment with the 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. 

Bonus tip: If a B pencil isn’t soft enough for you, try 2B or 4B. Pencil choice is personal preference, so use what you prefer so long as it is no harder than HB.

I’ve labelled what traditional artists would call each tone and marked it on the sphere where I shaded it.

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.

Complex Contrast

Contrast goes hand-in-hand with value because contrast is the range of tones used in a drawing. A wider range means a greater contrast. For example, taking contrast to the extreme, we have black and white. That gives us the most contrast. Less contrast comes from a smaller range, like black and mid-grey.

You can manipulate the contrast depending on 1. How much do you want the object to “pop” out of the page, and 2. How bright is your light source (or to indicate the time of day).

For example, going back to the sphere, I would make my brightest highlight brighter and darkest shadows darker for high contrast. This definitely makes the sphere pop, especially if I get rid of almost all the mid-tones.

For lower contrast, darken the highlights and lighten the shadows, so the sphere looks somewhat all grey. This effect is best to indicate a low light source or the subject is in the dark.

Tip: Play around with contrast and value even more by drawing on toned paper, which can be a grey or a brown tone. For your highlights, you’ll need a white coloured pencil or conté crayon. 

Bare Bones Foundation

This is just the tip of the iceberg for a hugely complex part of art. For example, you can also add contrast by using complementary colours, adding yet another dimension. Multiple light sources significantly alter the value plus the placement and shape of each shadow.

This information is a starting point to understanding value and contrast. Ultimately, careful observation of your subject, along with diligent practice, will be the most helpful.

Do you find it challenging to get correct values and contrast in your artwork? Do you have any tips for those who do struggle? Let us know in the comments. Subscribe to our email newsletter for more pointers and advice about making art. We’ll keep you up to date on our latest products and sales, too.

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. She likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm during her downtime. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 

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