Value vs. Color

Lately, most of my digital works (and a few of my traditional ones) passed through the stage of value study. It’s a “thing” I discovered only recently, thanks to my great teachers, and I’m pretty sure it is the key to my recent big improvement.

The hardest part for me when I work with colors is to separate well between lights and shadows. I won’t just use white for lighting and black for shading my hue, so I often find it difficult to make those colors seem just a different lit version of the same base color. Using value study saved my life!


Value is defined as “the lightness or darkness of tones or colors”: the more a color is light (i.e., the more it gets near white), the highest its value. Just by moving your greys between black and white, you can create complex shapes.

What is a value study? Long story short, it’s the black and white version of what you’re painting. You can see early on the contrast between your foreground and background, and decide lighting and main shadows.

Value study for a piece I’m actually working on: markers (left) and digital (right).

As you can see in the image above, I have no idea of the colors I’m gonna use, but I set a few guidelines: for example, the pillars are going to be darker than the walls, and the background crowd will be darker than my main character. It may seem little, but when you’re working on a big piece, it’s better to decide one thing at a time.

Most illustrators I know, me included, prefer to create their pieces entirely in greyscale and then colorizing them. The immediate benefit from this is that you have to keep in mind only one thing at a time, and can always play with colors later. Even working digitally, this freedom to play around is difficult to achieve if you don’t plan for it early on.  Besides, if the image doesn’t work when in greyscale, no amount of vibrant colors will ever fix it: that’s why I’d recommend to switch to greyscale your work once in a while, even if you are working directly with colors: together with mirroring the image, this is the best practice to notice mistakes early on.


Once the value study, or greyscale, works well,  have fun with colors! Whatever hue you’re putting in there is going to work, thanks to the value underneath. You only have to worry about them working well together.

A portrait by Françoise Nielly (left) and its greyscale version (right).

A purple and green face? How can it be? It well can, if the values are right! In the example above, the colors are all “wrong”, but you still easily recognize a face: the hue doesn’t matter when you got your value. See the purple upper lip and the yellow-greenish lower lip? Those colors are at the opposite of the spectrum, but still in the greyscale you can’t see a difference, because their values are (almost) the same.

A downside in coloring a value study is that, especially in digital, darker blacks and lighter whites are not going to be affected by your “color” layer: and that would be wrong because, as we all know, there are not pure blacks and whites in nature. Always remember to apply another layer and colorize the extremes too! A good rule of thumb is to saturate the shadows and desaturate the lights, but go with whatever works for you. For traditional painting, keep your medium diluted enough so it stays semitransparent.

I have met people who can find the right color almost as an instinct: unfortunately, I’m not one of them. Value study is not the answer to every difficulty in painting, but is a damn good help!