Why VALUE Means So Much to Me as a Watercolorist

"Value" is one of those words in the English language which has more than one meaning. This word may confuse people of other nationalities as they are learning how to communicate with us.

Unlike Pear, Pair and Pare, which all sound the same but bring a vastly different picture to mind, "value" is spelled the same way for at least three different common usages.

 1. Value can refer to economics - e.g. the amount of food you obtain when going grocery shopping.

Did you get the greatest value for your dollar?

Sometimes this sort of value comes to mind when I say goodbye to my paintings. Selling most often means trading what I've created, a work with intrinsic value (another term having myriad meanings, but basically the effort and energy of my life, funneled into tangible goods which appreciate over time) - for just bland, somewhat uninteresting paper money (which of course can then be traded for needed items).

Seems this green-colored stuff can depreciate faster than you or I want to know. Not very exciting. At times I just feel I'd rather hang on to my "baby"!

Ah, but this is not the value an artist most often talks about.

2. A second type of Value can refer to your perspective and opinions in life.

Most everyone grows to believe and hold different values via education and experiences, and so we gain a world-view.

What we "value" often changes our actions, how we use time, and our life direction.

Sometimes "values" refer to character qualities and integrity. Others just value sunshine over snow. Some value eating out in restaurants to eating home-grown foods. People can value limited liability over personal responsibility...and the list goes on...

Again, this is also not the value I want to show you today!

3. Value for a Watercolor Artist means simply visually determining lighter and darker toned objects or areas of the scene you desire to depict.

If you can't see these values, it is very hard to paint them!

As an example, see my tonal chalks - white to black, left to right (Though the whitest chalk is heavily smudged with gray from my dirty fingers):

Value can define subject matter.

Value can instruct the viewer's eye as to distance - whether the tree is closer or further away.

Value can suggest things like movement and shape.

“The ability to see tonal values accurately is the single most important factor in watercolor painting.” ~ Ron Ranson, p. 39, introduction to Solving the Mystery of Watercolor (Underlined emphasis mine - Elise)

I often encourage my students to do value studies.

If a finished painting study contains at least five values, it will look strong, even if only ONE color is used.

Below is one of my simple value and layered wash lesson demonstrations - an Adirondack Mountain scene, painted top to bottom, back to front and lighter to darker, using four colors:

Each mountain "comes closer" because it has a darker value. And color is used to enhance distance - as purple is a receding color and yellow comes forward.

Painting one, two, three, or four-color value studies is a very helpful exercise.

Here is a three-color value demonstration I did last year,

Bowl with Garlic:

After a couple months, it is very exciting to see students start to "get it"!

I hope to show you in my next blog how seeing tonal value often influences my choice of subject matter.

Today, as I walked to write this blog, it was snowing heavily. I noticed the snow fields were much lighter than the sky, the mountains were darker gray, with even darker gray trees in front of them. Such a beautiful scene.

Often, the world around me is a lovely blur of light and dark value. Seeing this way has become a wonderful experience I value deeply! =)

How do you see the world?

Valuing the gifts of expression,
and You - my dear reader,


"Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.
Where is the way where light dwelleth? And as for darkness, where is the place thereof,
That thou shouldest take it to the bound thereof, and that thou shouldest know the paths to the house thereof?
Knowest thou it, because thou wast then born? or because the number of thy days is great?
Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail,
Which I have reserved against the time of trouble, against the day of battle and war?
By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?
Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder;
To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man;
To satisfy the desolate and waste ground; and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?
Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? Or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?
Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?
Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee?
Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go and say unto thee, Here we are?
Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? or who hath given understanding to the heart?"

~ Job 38:18-36
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