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Tonal Value Pattern

"Planning the understructure of light and dark shapes at the beginning of each painting is the artist's most important job....The overall pattern of value shapes is the skeleton on which a painting is built. The eye needs this structure to create movement and excitement underneath the subject." (Jane R. Hofstetter)


The shapes in a painting are by far the most important design element. These shapes have many attributes: size, direction, edges, texture, and color. Color has three aspects: hue, intensity, and value. Value is the lightness or darkness of any color.

It is this third dimension of color -- value -- that is the most important attribute of a painting's major design shapes. If the values of the shapes in a painting read properly, the painting will still work after specific hues, intensities and textures are added. Conversely, if the values don't work, nothing that is added later will save the painting. Successful paintings are said to be structured on value and then decorated with color and texture. Details entertain, but value patterns hold a painting together. Value patterns create the skeleton, the underlying controlling structure, that supports the entire painting.

Tonal value of a shape is its lightness or darkness relative to surrounding shapes. The word "relative" is important. Values can appear darker or lighter than they actually are, depending on the surrounding or adjacent tones.

Designing with tonal values involves choosing which values to include, deciding which value with be dominant, and arranging the values of the positive and negative shapes into a pattern that accomplishes your purpose.

Tonal value have many uses in a painting. They can express emotions, create a mood, generate visual excitement. They can depict form, space, depth, movement and spatial relationships. They can attract attention to a particular area or move the eye from one area to another. They can create atmospheric perspective and give the illusion of light. They can draw the viewer into and through your picture.

Tonal Value Tools

There are many tools and techniques to assist in seeing tonal values.

Squinting or looking through your eye lashes helps you see simplified masses of light and dark.

A neutral gray card with a hole punched in the center helps you evaluate individual values in a scene or a photograph.

A gray scale card with 10 different values can be held in front of you or placed directly on a photograph. Individual values can then be compared with the values on the scale.

Red or green cellophane can be held in front of you or placed directly on a photograph to see the lights and darks more clearly.

A photocopy machine can be used to copy a colored photograph in black and white. An image editing program like Photoshop can also be used to remove all the color from an image.

Tonal Value Scale

There are an infinite number of gradations of lightness from white at one end of the continuum to black at the other. To make this continuum more manageable, numerous tonal value scales have been proposed. Some authors divide the values into three regions: light, midtones, and dark. Other authors have proposed five, seven, or nine distinct divisions.

To confuse things even further, some authors begin with white as the lowest number, while others start with black.

The numbers and names attached to the values are not important. What is important to remember is that there is a gradation of tonal values from white, through a range of grays, to black.

value scale

Tonal Value Range

Depending on your purpose, you may choose values that are close together on the value scale: 1, 2, and 3; 4, 5, and 6; or 7, 8, and 9. The lower the contrast in values, the softer the edges appear, even when painted very sharply. This will result in paintings that are flat and two-dimensional. One example where this would be appropriate would be a scene shrouded in fog or mist. Another place for close values would be when you want to create an apparent recession into space, such as a distant mountain range.

On another occasion, you may select values that are separated on the value scale: 3, 5, and 7; 2, 5, and 8; or 1, 5, and 9. The greater the contrast, the harder the edges seem. Selecting a greater tonal range produces greater tonal contrasts and creates more visual excitement. Higher contrasts also project a shape forward, bringing it closer to the viewer.

Tonal Value Key

Tonal Value Key refers to the overall tone of the entire painting. If the majority of the painting is light, composition is said to be "high key." If most of the painting is dark, it is called a "low key" painting.

Tonal Value Patterns

Tonal value pattern refers to the size, shape and arrangement of the light, midtone, and dark shapes in a painting. It is this pattern that forms the grand design for your painting. The tonal value pattern controls eye movement throughout the composition and creates a unifying effect.

The sizes of the major value shapes should vary. The painting should be composed of mostly one of the three values, some of a second, and a bit of a third. In the most common value patterns, the mid value is always the largest and is a field on which reside the smaller light and/or dark shapes.

View the value pyramid >>

The shape with the dominant value will occupy the largest area. Often it is the background. The shapes of the other two values must be designed as interesting, entertaining, engaging shapes. Some of the elements that make a shape entertaining are two different dimensions, an oblique thrust, and incidents at the edges.

Often a painting can be strengthened by uniting light shapes into one large shape. Numerous dark shapes can often be combined into larger dark shapes.

A painting should have a "fast-reading" value pattern. This means the darks, lights, and mid values should be easily seen from twenty feet away.

Edgar Whitney studied hundreds of paintings and decided that they could be reduced to 12 basic patterns using two or three values. Four of the most common are shown in the next section.

View Edgar Whitney's 12 Tonal Value Patterns >>

Frank Webb created a similar collection of value patterns. Webb's value patterns use four values.

View Frank Webb's 14 Tonal Value Patterns >>

Common Tonal Value Patterns

light midtone

Light against midtones.

dark midtone

Dark against midtones.

light dark midtone

Light Shape Against Dark Shape Surrounded by Midtones

dark light midtone

Dark Shape Against Light Shape Surrounded by Midtones

Jane Hofstetter Value Patterns


Jane Hofstetter, in her book 7 Keys to Great Paintings, uses value patterns to create an underlying structure that holds a painting together. She uses three value shapes (big, medium and small) that touch the edges of the format. Between these value shapes, light passages guide the eye through the painting to the area of interest. Generally the biggest dark and the biggest light shapes are found around the outside edges of the design and naturally direct the eye toward the more irregular, smaller shapes at the area of interest.


Tonal Value Patterns for Landscapes


Tonal values gradually become lighter as objects recede in the distance.

Tonal Value Sketches

"Your value sketch is where you make all the decisions and it will become your road map for the journey ahead." Ed Whitney

The tonal value sketch is a valuable, decision-making tool. It's easier to correct design errors on the sketch than on the painting. Explore numerous value options Choose the one that best serves your purpose.

The value sketch is a simplification of the values that will appear in the painting. The value sketch may indicate that the foreground will be painted in a single dark value. In the actual painting, several values from the dark end of the value scale will be included. In addition, some midtones and some lights may also be included in this predominately dark area.

Use Values to Direct Attention


You can direct the attention of the viewer by controlling the placement of lights and darks in a painting. The eye is naturally drawn to the areas of greatest dark/light contast. In the first picture, the focus is on the sky and the dark mountains. (Seeing with the Painter's Eye by Rex Brandt)


focus on water


focus on pier

Simultaneous Contrast

simultaneous contrast

"Of two objects equally light, one will appear less so if seen on a white ground; and, on the contrary, it will appear a great deal lighter if upon a space of dark shade." Leonardo da Vinci

Simultaneous contrast is an optical illusion that occurs when two contrasting hues, values, or intensities are placed next to each other. For example, in this image the middle rectangle is a uniform color and value throughout. However, it is perceived as being lighter when it is surrounded by a dark background and darker when surrounded by a light background. Simultaneous contrast exaggerates any difference between the color properties (hue, value, and intensity) of two adjacent colors to some degree in the mind's eye. This phenomenon is noticeable when you look at the edge where two walls come together. The edge adjacent to the lighter wall has an exaggerated dark shade while the edge on the darker one has an exaggerated lighter one. A photograph of the same junction will not exhibit the phenomena since it is processed into the perception by the brain to enhance the edge and make it more easily recognized.

A light gray against a dark gray will appear even lighter; a red against a gray will cause the gray to appear green, the complement of red.



Counterchange is a visual phenomenon related to the idea of simultaneous contrast. When an object of uniform value is placed partly in front of a light area and partly in front of a dark area, it's value will appear to change. The part against the lighter background will appear darker than the portion against a darker background. For example, when a telephone pole is lying on the ground, it is the same value from one end to the other. However, the lower portion of a vertical pole that is in front of dark trees will be light, while the upper portion of the same pole will be darker in front of the lighter sky.


Here's an example of what can be done with counterchange.

Adoor the Forest
5" x 7"
Scratchboard on smooth Clayboard
Sold at Monterey Museum of Art 2006 Minatures Exhibit and Fundraiser
© Ruthy Porter

Explore counterchange through exercises and projects >>

Using Tonal Values to Create Passages or Light Paths

"Passage, the flow of light across several objects without interruption, will unite them as one." Rex Brandt

"To see passage, the painter must overcome an instinct to individuate. Instead of focusing on separate things, he must seek bridges and channels of continuous light." Rex Brandt

The viewer's eye tends to move along connected shapes of similar value. Our eyes move easily from one piece of dark to another connected dark, or from one passage of light to another closely positioned light. These connected value patterns are your most powerful tool for leading the viewer's eye around the composition.

You can use value contrast to plan where you want the viewer's eye to pause, change direction, and eventually end up.

Most often your eye enters a painting at the bottom edge. Use patterns of light and dark to lead the viewer's eye from this point in a not-too-direct route to the area of interest.

Using Tonal Values to Create Form

Six tonal values are used to suggest 3D form: highlight, local color (usually considered the middle value), form shadow, reflected light, crevice shadow (proximity shadow), cast shadow.

When painting a building with one side or plane facing the light source and the other side or plane out of the light, it will look more realistic if you make the shadow side darkest right at the edge where the light plane and the dark plane meet. This is called the plane-change accent.

Exactly the same thing happens to any cylinder or sphere that is lighted from one side. The dark value accent is there, but since the shape is round and has no planes, this area is called the core of the shadow. The core of the shadow has soft blended edges, while the plane-change accent is always hard-edged.

The cast shadow side is 40% darker than the sunlit side; however, one must also consider that reflected light will change this value. The cast shadow will be approximately 40% darker than the local color of that surface. If the value of the sunlit side is 1 then the shadow side should be 40% darker or 5.

© 2009 Scott Brown. Website design by Clarion Design.