TIP #57: 5 Ways to Help Kids Use More Values in Their Paintings

TIP #57 5 Ways to Help Kids Use More Values in their Paintings

Value can make or break a painting! When we help kids use more values in their paintings, their work can improve dramatically. But until kids are specifically taught about value, it’s likely to be overlooked.

Has this happened in your classroom? A student looks at their painting and feels like “something isn’t quite right” but they can’t figure out what the problem is. When this happens, it’s usually this one culprit… too many mid-range values

Using a range of values is an essential ingredient to a successful painting. 

What is “value”?

Value is one of the 7 Elements of Art (line, shape, form, space, value, color, and texture). It refers to the lightness (tint) or darkness (shade) of a color.

While each of the 7 Elements of Art is important, value could compete for the top spot because of the effect it has on all the other Elements. 

How does value affect the other Elements of Art?

Value plays a critical role in how each of the other Elements of Art are perceived. I’ll be referring to 2D artwork (paintings and drawings) in the examples below:


A line’s lightness or darkness (value) helps determine how prominently it appears. 

Shape / Form

The gradations of lightness or darkness on a shape are what creates the illusion of 3D that turns a “shape” into a “form”. The lightest values on a form will also show you what direction the light is coming from.


Value is used to create depth or a sense of space in a painting. Objects that are further away will be lighter in value


Everything you see has a “local color” or hue (a.k.a. its “actual color”, for example, a lemon is yellow). But every color also has a value, whether light, dark, or somewhere in between. 

Look carefully at that lemon and you’ll see value at work. The highlights will be lighter and shaded areas will be darker, and may not even look yellow at all… even though the lemon itself is still basically “yellow”!


Contrasting values (light against dark) are what make the illusion of “visual texture” so believable in 2D realistic art.

Without a range of lights and darks, a painting becomes awash inmid-range values. But add some contrasting values and that same painting can go from “meh” to “magnificent”!

How can we help kids use more values in their paintings?

Kids will notice color (especially “local color”) right away, but value takes a little more experience to recognize at first. As artist and teacher, Shelley Hanna, likes to say, “Color can steal the show, but value sets the stage.” 

Want to help your students become more aware of value and be able to see it and use it effectively? Here are 5 ways you can help kids use more values in their paintings…

1. Put your cell phone camera to work.

Take some photos of paintings with a good use of value and convert them to black and white. This way kids will be able to see clearly what a range of values looks like. (Using your cell phone camera, just click “edit”, select “filters”, and swipe through to B&W.)

This is helpful for showing successful examples to your students when you first teach them about value. You can also do this with work in progress to help students see where their own paintings need more contrast of lights and darks.

2. Try squinting.

Suggest that students squint as they look at their subject, or at their painting. Squinting helps to blur details so that areas of light and dark become simplified and easier to see.

3. Have students create their own “value scale”. 

Use a soft graphite pencil (a 6BEbony, or 314 Draughting pencil) to create a range of values from lightest light to darkest dark.

Fold-out Value Scale in a sketchbook

You might want to invest in a class set of “Value Finders” to help students check their values as they work. 

Students can also make value scales for colors. A single color (or hue) can have many different values by adding white for tints or black for shades.

Comparing color value scales is interesting because you can have 2 very different colors with the same value… or a single color with many values!

4. Hold a “Value Scavenger Hunt“. 

Have students look for examples of light, medium, and dark values in fine art prints or calendars. Postcards that advertise art shows and exhibits are also handy to collect for games like this.

Looking at lots of art is helpful for identifying the values of colors in paintings. Seeing values in black and white work is one thing. Seeing values in a full color painting is more challenging!

5. Practice quick value studies.

Making small “monochromatic” paintings and drawings (tints and shades of a single color) can also be helpful for learning to use value

Kids don’t have to include every value from light to dark in all their paintings. To start, have them include just 3 values (light, medium, and dark) and work up from there. 

The contrast of light against dark helps to create a focal point, adds interest, and is especially essential in realism.

If value has been missing in your students’ work, try the suggestions above to help kids use more values in their paintings. Then the next time they feel like “something’s not quite right” in a painting, they’ll be more likely to check their values!

an inspiring quote:

“It’s not hard to make decisions once you know what your values are.”

~ Roy Disney

I’m pretty sure the “values” Roy Disney had in mind when he said this are not the kind of “values” I’ve been talking about in this TIP! But this quote is applicable just the same.

An understanding of values will guide your students well in their artwork. When they sense that a painting or drawing “needs something”, a range of values is a great first thing to check for.

Making decisions about what to change in your artwork is always easier when you know what to look for. Not having a healthy range of values is often the problem. When we help kids use more values in their paintings they’ll begin to quickly recognize when this is what’s needed.

a question to consider:

What reminder could you post in your classroom to help kids remember to use more values in their paintings?

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