Value

What is Value?

The dictionary definition of value is the lightness or darkness of color or grayscale. This definition of value is correct, but when we study value as a design principle, value has an expanded definition.

Value in design is either High Contrast or Keys.

There are people who are physically unable to perceive color, meaning they see the world in varying tones of gray. People with this color deficit can function in life with minimal difficulties.

Interestingly, there are 1000s of shades of gray, yet the human eye normally discerns only about 40 shades. To put value into perspective, many copiers print about 8-10 shades of gray.

A Little Color Theory

You need to know the following Color Theory concepts to better understand the value concepts in this presentation.

In Color Theory you learn:

  1. All color is affected by the colors surrounding them.
  2. To make a warm color appear warmer surround it with a cooler color and vise-versa.
  3. Every color has value.
  4. Afterimage, we learn to tune it out, but it’s there!

Colors are affected by the colors placed next to them.

  1. All color is affected by the colors surrounding them.
  2. To make a warm color appear warmer surround it with a cooler color.
Values are also affected by the values surround them!!!

Value & Color

Every color value. If you take all of the colors out of a design you get value. This is called Inherent Value.

Afterimage is defined as an image that continues to appear in one’s vision after the exposure to the original image has ceased.

You need a timer for this exercise. In the next few images, you (should!) get the afterimage effect. Some people can’t see afterimages. Don’t worry, if that is the case. It probably means that it takes longer for your eye to get “tired” permitting you to see the afterimage.

Directions: Begin by staring at the red strip for 30 seconds. Try not to blink and keep staring at it. Perhaps staring at the rectangle’s edges will help. When the timer goes off immediately stare at the circle on the right. What you should see will be fleeting!

What did you see when you looked at the black dot?

What you should have seen is a ghost of the rectangle, but it should appear greenish to blueish-green. This demonstrates how each color is affected by the colors surrounding them.

Next, let’s see how warm colors surrounding cool colors make the warm appear warmer and the cool appear cooler.

Directions: Begin by staring at the red strip for 30 seconds. Try not to blink and keep staring at it. Perhaps staring at the rectangle’s edges will help. When the timer goes off immediately stare at the strip on the right.

What did you see when you looked at the green rectangle?

What you should have seen is a ghost of the rectangle, but it should appear greenish to blueish–green, and where it overlapped the green rectangle the ghost rectangle is brighter. This demonstrates how warm colors appear warmer when surrounded by cooler colors and vice-versa.

Now let’s look at an afterimage using grayscale value.

In the next slide stare at the black box with the white square for 30 seconds. Try not to blink and keep staring at it. Then, immediately stare at the dot on the right.

What did you see when you looked at the black dot?

You should have seen the black and white shape in reverse. The black will appears as a bright white and the white will appear as a dark grey. You may even have seen the edges of the afterimage shape have a dark outline!

Now let’s start looking at value as a design concept.

As mentioned earlier, the human eye sees around 40 different values. When using a grayscale, I like to use the value range of 1-10 with 10 being black and 1 is white.

Value to set up a mood/feelings and energy level

When I teach the principles of design, I discuss how to apply “words” into your visual art.

As a professional visual artist, you will work with clients. Clients use words to explain what they want to be communicated in the final design. You need to figure out the main mood/feelings, the energy level, and look for the final project that will fit your client’s needs.  An immediate way to set up a mood and energy level in your design is through value.

The “Body Language” of Visual Arts

One way to tap into a visual mood is to think about the elements of art as body language. Experts don’t agree on the numbers but all claim that we rely on more than 60 % of body language when communicating with one another. In other words, we unconsciously rely more on what we see when communicating rather than the words we hear.

Imagine this couple is saying sweet, loving words, in gentle voices to one another. By reading the body language you realize that the words don’t reflect the actual feelings.

The same is true in visual arts. The visual elements should support the message you wish to communicate.

High Contrast Value

High contrast value is strictly black and white, or mainly black and white with a limited amount of other values.

A basic formula for high contrast is; the majority of the values are roughly 50% black and 50% white. If a limited amount of other values are included in high contrast value, then the black and while values won’t be fifty/fifty but should be close to fifty/fifty. Note that if the design is mainly white, or mainly black it is no longer high contrast but is a key.

In this example, the values being used are strictly black and white. Roughly you are seeing 50% black and 50% white, with no other values.

In this type of high contrast, the majority of the values are either black and white but there are some limited other values. Black and white must remain the two dominant values.

High Contrast Value Energy Level and Feelings

High contrast has a lot of energy which can create a lot of movement. There are additional compositional elements that you can use to create movement such as rhythm, texture, high energy shapes, etc., but you can create movement strictly using high contrast value.

Consider how afterimages are created by the major contrasts of pure black and white values and how it adds to the energy of this value.

The types of feelings you can achieve with high contrast are; electric, intense, chaos; etc. Note that these descriptive words express high energy. These words are not the only words that can apply to high contrast values. If you need a lot of energy in a design, high contrast won’t let you down!

Keys

Keys are a great design tool to set up a mood/feeling. Keys are high, medium or low.

The energy level of keys is usually low. A lot of movement across the composition is not the main criteria when working with keys. If you need a high-energy piece, it’s best to stick with high contrast (of course, there are always exceptions!).

Often you will find only High Keys and Low Keys in most books on design. The approach, when eliminating the middle key is a bit different than the approach discussed here. I like working with the medium key as I often see it used in many paintings.

Keys have less energy than High Contrast values. This is because they have a limited dominant value range.

Keys have a dominant value range, but there needs to be a limited amount of “other values.” It is important to include some of the “other values” to add areas of definition. Without this definition the value runs the risk of being flat, giving the eye nothing to latch onto.

The formula for keys is 75% or more of the dominant values and 25% or less of other values.

You need to include a limited amount of “other values” to add small areas of definition. Without these small areas of definition, the value can become “flat”, leaving nothing of interest for the eye to lock on to. When this happens the viewer spends little time looking through the piece and moves on. Also, the “other values” can assist in creating movement across the picture plane.

High Keys

High Keys are mainly values 1-4. Feeling associated: sunny, floating, happy, etc.

High key in color and grayscale.

Medium Keys

Medium Keys use mainly values 4-7. Feeling associated: uncertain, foggy sad, etc.

After seeing the piece above in color, which is using warm and cool colors, the grayscale version lack definition and vibrancy. This is happening due to the warm and cool colors affecting one another. I will address that in a future blog on color theory.

Low Keys

Low Keys mainly uses values 7-10.  Feeling associated: mysterious, moody, creepy, etc

The example above is a nice example of how we need small areas of “other values” in a key. Because there are very light values in the sky edging around the trees, we are able to make out that they are trees! The same is true with the water. If the water in the center of the photo was close in the value range, say like the area in the photo on the far left, lower the oak tree, we would have a difficult time sorting out the image and quickly dismiss the piece.

In the painting below, the artist wisely applies “other values,” in this case lighter values to create a focal point.

As with high contrast value, the words I had applied to the different keys are not a definitive list. They are a guide. Also, keep in mind that once you understand how to make this concept work then you can and should break the rules!

The piece below, by the Chicago artist Ed Paske, is a great example of the artist playing with the “rules.” The subject matter is a smiling face, using a lot of bright, pure colors. These colors are often found in illustrations used in children’s books, aiming at ages 2-5. The twist is the use of a low key, which amplifies a creepy feeling! Also, note that the pure colors are often darker in value than most people would guess when viewing the colored image only. As this is getting into the world of color theory, I will leave that for a future blog.

Credits: Some of the information in this presentation comes from the book, Design Basics, Seventh Edition by David Lauer

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