Watercolor Course Part 2: Value – Light, mid-tones, and Dark

When constructing a watercolor painting, one must work from light to dark. Otherwise, you easily miss out on watercolor’s unparalleled quality as a conveyer of color and mood.

What is “Value” in Watercolor?

In watercolor technique, “value” refers to the color tone or degree of brightness in a color. It’s a central concept in painting and art in general. Value is a way to describe how light or dark a color is without considering its actual color. In watercolor painting, values are used to create depth, contrast, and form in the image.

Watercolor pigments can vary in value from very light to very dark. By adjusting the values in the painting, the artist can achieve a sense of space, perspective, and depth. Bright areas are called highlights, dark areas are called shadows, and the intermediate degree is called mid-tones.

To understand values in watercolor or any other painting, it’s helpful to think of a black-and-white version of the same subject. This helps determine which areas should be painted lighter and which areas should be painted darker to give life and depth to the image.

Watercolor artists can manipulate values by mixing colors with more or less water to create lighter or darker shades of the same color. The technique usually involves painting multiple transparent layers of color on top of each other to gradually build up the desired value and depth in the painting.

Values are a crucial aspect of watercolor and are essential for creating successful and realistic paintings, but they can also be used to create abstract works and experiment with different moods and expressions.

The Lightest Values

After sketching your subject on the paper using your preferred method (refer to the basic watercolor course), select the lightest areas in your painting and apply a faint and watery mixture of color. Remember that what is white should be left white on the paper. You might use masking of the area if you intend to work wet on wet. The white in a scene is often not pure white but rather a palette of extremely light colors and subtle shadows. Highlights that depict reflections, mirroring, or depth, however, are indeed pure white.

It’s better to apply too little color pigment in the first layer than too much. Let it dry and check if you’re satisfied with the nuance. To speed up the drying process, you can use a hairdryer from a safe distance (to avoid moving the color with the airflow).

You can achieve lovely depths in your painting by placing light tones behind both medium and dark values. You can essentially paint your entire image in light tones, thus making the most of watercolors.

Mid-tone values

After working with the lightest values and highlights, it’s time to add a bit more color. Use the medium tones to create depth in your watercolor. Even though medium tones are stronger values than light ones, there’s no need to create thick color blends. A watercolor painting is built up with many layers, and with each additional layer, the result becomes darker.

It might sound quite directive, but try practicing applying thin layers instead of painting everything at once.

If you’re struggling with watercolor paper that pills, you might be dealing with poor-quality paper. In any case, this can help you determine how many layers of watercolor your paper can handle. A razor blade can remove the worst pilling.

The medium tones can be seen as a large shape that sits together and surrounds the light tones. Medium tones simplify a painting and soften details that aren’t crucial for conveying the desired image.

Dark Values in Watercolor

Finally, apply the strong cast shadows or the dark blended tones to the paper. Traditionally, we perceive dark, muted tones as being farthest away (atmospheric perspective always makes colors appear less distinct from a distance), but a touch of complementary color – in mixed black – also helps three-dimensional objects pop on the paper when a shadow is placed correctly (calculate this using perspective drawing).

Apply the dark values gently, add a little, step back, and observe how the subjects emerge. Notice if there’s a lack of depth or clarity in certain areas and work on them – one detail at a time. Be cautious not to overly darken the watercolor. Watercolor should be transparent; otherwise, you might as well work with a different technique.

If you want an outline around a figure – similar to a comic book drawing – apply it very last, as the watercolor would otherwise flow over the dark line during the process and result in an odd outcome.

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