Fundamentals of Art, Lesson 3.0

The Value of Values(In the previous lessons, the students were introduced to their own personal style and encouraged to collect ideas in their sketchbook.  I recommend having the homework be to assign one page of the sketchbook, to be filled with one of the ideas from the list in lesson 2.  This way when the class lessons seem a bit dry and academic, there’s always a release valve for some creativity!)

There is hardly an artistic principle more fundamental than Value.  Simply, “value” refers to how light or dark a thing is.  Rendering values consciously, learning how to perceive values in existing work, and utilizing values to plan your work, are useful skills for any artist.

First, depending on the age of your student, practice rendering value in a gradient.  A “gradient” is a gradual change of values from darkest (100%, or black) all the way up to lightest (0%, or white.)  Grade-school age kids might need to learn how to make a gradient by pressing hardest with the pencil to fill an area, then lighten up their touch to create lighter and lighter shades.  It might take a few tries.  What I do for the kids is demonstrate filling one of the outlines from Black to White, first.  Then I hand out sheets with pre-drawn rectangular outlines on them.  The rectangle exercise can be repeated for older students using a black pen, a blue ballpoint pen, or anything the student might have on hand.  I find that using crosshatching or stipple fills are best saved for the more mature student, or in conjunction with a particular pen and ink technique lesson.  This lesson is really directed at only seeing value for what it is.  A “scribble” technique is fine to demonstrate.  However, two things do contribute to a nice gradual gradient:  Pressure and Mark Density.  While school age kids might be working on controlling Pressure, Teens and adults are more likely to understand Density naturally, by packing their scribbles closer together to push their values toward 100%.

Show them true black and true white colors in comparison with their darkest shades, and point out that “really black” is hard to approach with anything other than black ink.  True white is also very difficult to reach without using opaque white paint – even when you leave the paper white, most standard papers are either a very light gray or ivory.  You can demonstrate this by holding up two different kinds of sketchbooks or paper to compare them.


Regardless of class level, students can benefit from executing a basic gradient.
As you can see here, true black (left side square) and true white (right side square) are difficult to reach.

The next step is to have the students draw something using only three values – black, gray, and white.  The focus is on simplifying the image, not drawing, so just have them trace something simple.  You can give them a choice of some clear black and white printouts, with a single well-lit object or two.  I like to have many black and white copies of animals (copied from old National Geographics) that I keep in a box for them to look through.

Hand out plain printer or typing paper.  Tell them to place the image underneath and trace the basic shapes that they see lightly in pencil.  (typing paper tends to be thin enough to see though, as opposed to sketchbook or art paper) If they have trouble seeing the shapes, they can hold their papers up against a window or patio door.  No details required!

Now, have them sketch out the dark areas, midtone areas, and light areas.  Have them scribble-fill the midtone areas first, then the blackest areas next.  No need to use gradients, yet…(although some students might try to do this anyway)  What matters is that the student sees that value is a strong tool, capable of communicating form and depth, all on its own.

Three Value Apples

Three Value Apples by Leah J

Simplifying values is useful while sketching, particularly when creating quick thumbnails or design sketches for review.

Depending on the age and attention span of your audience, a fun twist would be to re-create this lesson, collage-style, using torn pieces of gray, black, and white paper instead.  If you use this lesson or any of the ideas listed here, please feel free to message me and let me know how it goes!  Next you’ll be using gradients to create form with your students…

© 2017 Leah Jay | Leah Jay Artworks

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This document, with associated images, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Leah JLeah Jay (Jakusovszky) has been an artist and illustrator in San Jose for 25 years. She creates using a variety of media including watercolor, acrylic, pastel, ink, and collage. Her illustrative work has been featured in many books, and highlights from her career include directing 2001’s WTC Memorial Art Project to facilitate artist’s responses to 9/11 and successfully crowdfunding her artbook “Amphibian Love” to benefit Save the Frogs in 2015.

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