Value in Art - Understanding One of the Art Elements

January 15, 2017

When one discusses the value in art there are two very distinctive paths to follow. The concern with value in art is both a technical question related to color and to light, and also a subjective issue which touches on philosophical, economic, art market and aesthetic concerns. Focused on the definition of the value in art from the technical point of view, value, also known as a tint, illustrates the artistic manipulation of light and dark. Be it through a balanced play of the light elements, or through a high contrast of the two, the value in art helps to create the illusion of the mass and of the volume. It is also crucial for the creation of a dramatic effect and of the focal point within an artwork.

Value of different art elements, such as scale light and color values, are played with in this painting
The Denman Ross Value Scale. Image via

What is Value in Art? Definition and Examples

Defined as one of the seven elements of art, next to line, shape, space, form, texture, and color, the value in art is a quality or a value of light and dark of a certain shade or tone[1]. This art element is best understood if visualized as a scale or a gradient. In 1907 Denman Ross, American painter, art collector, a scholar of art history and theory, introduced a value scale which is still applied today. On such a scale, from the lightest shade, i.e. white to the darkest shade, i.e. black, various shades of gray reside. These shades of gray describe the amount of the dark or light elements of any color and describe its lightest and darkest tones or hues, thus giving us a closer understanding of what value in art is. Such a scale is extremely helpful for painters to identify light, mid-tones, and darks more easily.

Depending on the amount of white and black within a certain hue, the color appears lighter or darker. Showing the standard variations in tone, the values near the lighter end of the scale spectrum are termed high-keyed, while those on the darker end are low-keyed. The lightening or darkening of the tones influences the saturation and adds to the dilution of color. For many, value in art is more important than color, as it helps to determine the tone of the color itself.

Value in art as an example of different lightness terms
Caravaggio - The Denial of St. Peter. Image via

The Artist's Use of Value in Art

In two-dimensional artworks, the application of value can help in giving a shape the illusion of mass or volume or it can give the entire composition a sense of lighting and depth. By playing with effects of shading and of contrast, artists manipulate the public’s eye and attempt to guide it to the focal point of the painting or drawing. It is a well-known fact that the best way to attract the eye is to place the lightest element against a dark element. This, not only creates the focal point of interest, but it can produce a dramatic effect. In Baroque painting, the technique of chiaroscuro, literally meaning light-dark in Italian, was applied to produce highly dramatic effects[2]. Such a technique is defined by a clear tonal contrast exemplified by very high-keyed whites, placed directly against very low-keyed darks. Since candlelit scenes were extremely popular in Baroque painting, many masters of the past turned to this technique. The most famous, of course, is Caravaggio. Relying on the high contrast between the colors of his palette, he created some of the most effective and dramatically charged paintings such as The Denial of St. Peter.

What is the definition of value in art can be seen through these examples of paintings
Left: Claude Monet - Mademe Monet and Her Son. Image via / Right: James Abbott McNeill Whistler - The Mother. Image via

How Do We See Value in Art?

The artist’s manipulation of all the art elements is crucial to the understanding of the produced artwork. How the author draws his line, creates various textures, or to what medium he/she turns to defines the aesthetic language of each author. This is also relevant in the debate about value in art, and the arena of black and white photography is frequently used to best illustrate the value in action. It is here that one can best visualize how the infinitive variations of gray suggest planes and textures, and how through these, the idea of the value, defined through contrast is achieved[3].

In comparison to the above-mentioned painter Caravaggio, who used a contrast of color on his palette, artists such as the Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler chose to concentrate on various ends of color values. Various landscape images by Monet were created with the manipulation of high-key color values, giving the image an atmosphere of vibrant energy, and of life. In contrast, the atmosphere of the famous painting The Mother by Whistler was created with the use of low-key values of color. These examples illustrate just how crucial is the element of value for the creation of the atmosphere and of a certain narrative of an image.

Be sure to check out works by Monet on our marketplace!

Value in art has another definition as well. Apart from the technical aspect of the value in art, the value can also refer to the sentimental, cultural, or ritualistic importance of the work. Unlike the questions about color, contrast, or luminosity, this type of value cannot be measured as it is entirely subjective and open to numerous interpretations.

Editors’ Tip: Light for Visual Artists: Understanding & Using Light in Art & Design

Divided into three comprehensible chapters, the book is the first book to look at the way light can be used to create realistic and fantastical effects in a wide range of visual media. It is a valuable resource for animators, digital illustrators, painters, photographers, and artists working in any medium. Clearly written by a practicing illustrator, this book is essential reading for both students and professional artists. Covering a number of issues concerning light in art, such as dimensions of color, the interaction of various kinds of lighting, and the colors of many typical kinds of lighting, the texts offer a new look onto things we normally take for granted.


  1. Castillo, J., 7 Elements of Art, Morgan James Publishing, 2008
  2. Janson, A., Janson, H., W., History of Art: The Western Tradition , Prentice Hall Professional, 2003
  3. Prince, E., S., Art is Fundamental: Teaching the Elements and Principles of Art , Chicago Review Press, 2008


All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: James Abbott McNeill Whistler - The Mother, detail. Image via

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