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The Basics Of Tonal Value For Watercolor Painting

Learn the basic concepts of Tonal Value and create useful Value Scales.

Watercolor paintings can be termed “washed-out”. The term is used to describe a painting affected by two conditions, one of which is lack of value range – lack of darker values in particular.  

These lessons are four of the most valuable “watercolor painting” lessons you can learn. 

Value Basics

Value is a measure of the relative lightness or darkness of a color or color shape. It is also referred to as tone and is one of the Four Characteristics of Color. Value is the most important Characteristic to understand.  The range and placement of value will arguably have more effect on the viewers perception of light, form, space and mood than any other.

Learn to use Value well and wisely. It will boost the strength and accomplishment of your work.


Value has three important uses to the artist:

  • First, properly applying a range of values supports the representation of an object with its local color and some indication of its three-dimensional form.
  • Second,properly applying a range of values supports the representation of the quality, intensity and direction of light.
  • Third, the conscious placement of contrasting light and dark shapes helps draw the eye to certain places in the composition, especially the focal point.  Essentially, replacing lights, darks and mid-values where they best fit the design of the painting.


Create A Five-Step Value Scale

This is one of the most useful tools for the watercolor painter. It is an abbreviated value scale that will help you see the values in your subjects and in your paintings.

It’s easy to make one – this video shows you how.


A lack of darker values is one of the conditions that ruins otherwise well-constructed and well painted watercolors. This happens because we are not aware of the Value of the colors we use and because watercolor tends toward lighter value. 

Making the effort to create this scale will start to train your eye and get you started on the road to Tonal Mastery!

What you’ll need

  • Watercolor Paper –  about 5″ x 3″ or so
  • Small round brush
  • Colors: Payne’s gray, Ivory Black or a combination of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna

Creating A Nine-Step Value Scale

This lesson shows how to create a nine-step value scale. It is a more difficult challenge than the five-step scale above. This in-depth lesson includes a common approach to creating the value scale allowing for various adjustments in the process.  

You’ll find that some of the value swatches are more difficult than others, especially those done at the end of the process. These require the ability to discern subtle differences between value steps.  

Doint this exercise even once will develop you eye more than you might expect. 

What you’ll need

    • a small sheet of watercolor paper
    • Paint – Ivory or Lamp Black, or a mixture of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna
    • Brushes – any good Medium round will work


An Easy Way To Check Value In Your Paintings

Converting value to color is often difficult.  Maintaining the values you designed when you start working in color is a challenge for many.  Value Scales are unparalleled in judging value and training your eye.

There is a quick, easy way to check the values in your painting that is as close as your phone!