10 Steps to Determine Values in Watercolor

Although I am known for using vibrant colors to create what appear to be playful, spontaneous images in my watercolor paintings, the key to the success of these paintings is the value structure of the compositions. Here’s how I teach others to use studies to plan effective compositions.     

by David R. Daniels

Before you begin painting the
value sketch or the watercolor
painting, draw graphite lines on
both sheets of paper to mark
and connect the centers of each
side, as well as the corners.

When I first started painting in watercolor, I was like most beginners in that I assumed the medium was all about color. After all, the hallmark of a great watercolor is the way the layers of transparent color and reserved white paper capture the sense of light in the landscape, on a still life arrangement, or on a person’s face. The order of importance for me was color first, shape second, and value third.

With experience, I discovered that color only works well if it is composed so that the dark, middle, and light values are planned in advance and if the composition of shapes engages viewers and helps them understand what the picture is all about. I learned the order of priority really needed to be value first, shape second, and color third.

After elevating the importance of value, I came up with a simple way of making proportional value sketches on gray paper using black-and-white watercolors. Once I knew the method was helping me create better paintings, I started teaching it to students by itemizing what materials and techniques would work for them. I’ve organized this method into 10 specific recommendations I want to pass along to you.

1. You’ll need a sheet of your favorite watercolor paper and a piece of gray paper. I use Arches cold-pressed watercolor paper because I develop paintings that are larger than standard-size sheets, but the brand of paper or surface quality you use is less important. The gray papers I use are made for drawing or pastel painting, and I don’t mind working with a lower-quality sheet because I’m not going to preserve or exhibit the value sketch. Just make sure the paper you buy is a medium gray, not a light gray or a dark gray, because you’ll want it to establish the middle-value range in your sketch.

2. It is essential that your two pieces of paper have the exact same proportions, because when the sheets are proportional, the sketch can be enlarged to the size of the watercolor paper without any need for adjustment. Two sheets that are the same size are already proportional, but if you prefer to make the sketch smaller than the painting, you need a way to ensure that the two sheets correspond. You can figure the proportions out mathematically, or you can perform this simple exercise. Lightly draw a diagonal line between the bottom left and the top right corners of your watercolor paper. Then, place your smaller piece of sketch paper in the lower left corner of the watercolor paper so that its edges are flush with the edges of the watercolor paper. Mark the spot at which the edge of the sketch paper meets your diagonal line. If that spot falls at the exact corner of the sketch paper, then the two pieces are in proportion. If it does not, you can trim your sketch paper on one side so that the point becomes the corner of the sheet, making the two papers proportional.

3. Draw graphite lines on both sheets of paper according to the diagram shown on page 53. Some artists prefer to draw a grid rather than diagonal lines connecting the corners and middle of the sheets, but I find the combination of the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal divisions to be more helpful in duplicating the gesture drawing for my intended painting. It’s important that these lines be drawn on both sheets of paper before you start painting, because they will be obscured by the watercolor paint.

2009, watercolor, 36 x 48.
Collection the artist.

4. Make a graphite contour drawing of you subject, first on the gray paper, then when you are satisfied with the composition, transfer that drawing to the watercolor paper. The grid will be a great help when transferring your image. Here again it is important to establish the outlines of the major shapes before you paint so that the lines are visible when you move from the value sketch to the watercolor painting. The drawing should only be a light indication of the design, not a detailed study of all the elements of your picture.

5. Squeeze out some titanium white (rather than Chinese white) and black (ivory black or lamp black) watercolor paints on your palette and begin panting directly on the paper with pure black and white, creating a variety of grays directly on the paper by adding water. Use those to paint the relative values in your subject. Many of my students work from photographs, and they sometimes make black-and-white photocopies that automatically identify the values, but I encourage them to go through the process of judging colors in terms of their value because that is an important skill all painters need to develop.

6. Feel free to revise the arrangement of lights, darks, and middle values to make the composition as clear and well-integrated as possible. Titanium white is an opaque pigment, so it is easy to make values lighter, and a strong black or purple will allow you to darken a value by changing the mixture on your palette. If things get too wet on the surface of the paper, let the sketch dry so that it will be easier to make changes. The point is to arrive at an effective composition, not to create a showpiece.

7. When you are ready to paint with a full palette of watercolors, keep the value sketch and your other source material—photographs or live subjects—close to you while you are painting. You’ll probably find that the value sketch is far more important than a photograph because it will show you how to simplify the design and make the best use of the colors. If you use a masking agent to preserve white shapes on the watercolor paper, as I often do, you need to apply it before you begin painting. The whitest areas of your value sketch are always places for the possible use of a masking agent.

8. As you are painting, feel completely free to change the colors from what you see in the photograph or the actual setup. Remember, it is more important to get the value correct than to match the color you observe. In fact, you can completely change the colors so long as you balance the values to match what is in your sketch.

Value Sketch for Lily
2009, watercolor, 6 x 8.
Collection the artist. 

9. The procedures you follow for painting are flexible. I prefer to paint some of the dark shapes in the design and then build up the layers of transparent color, because that helps me define the range of lights and darks. However, there is nothing wrong with following the more traditional method of gradually building the painting from light-to-dark values and from transparent-to-opaque pigments.

10. After you’ve done a lot of preparatory value studies for your watercolors, you may find that you can automatically visualize the composition of light, medium, and dark values without actually painting them on gray paper. It’s perfectly fine to discontinue the preliminary steps if you have achieved the desired goal of being able to see value relationships immediately.


About the Artist

David R. Daniels earned an M.A. from Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant, and taught in the Michigan public schools before becoming a full-time professional artist. He now teaches at Montgomery College, in Maryland; at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC; and privately in his Silver Spring, Maryland, studio. His paintings have been included in dozens of group and solo exhibitions, as well as in books and magazines. For more information, visit his website at www.mrwatercolor.com.


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About BrianRiley

Brian Riley is the managing editor for the American Artist family of titles (American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing & Workshop) and has been part of the AA team since 2003. He first became interested in art as a child, specifically drawing, but drifted away from the visual arts as he grew older, gravitating towards writing while in college. His position at AA has offered him the opportunity to reinvigorate his early passion and continue his education.  

4 thoughts on “10 Steps to Determine Values in Watercolor

  1. David– This is a great article!! I was browsing the articles on this web site and decided to read this eventhough I’ve been painting for many years and thought it might be just “intresting”. Well, I have never actually done what you’re talking about, actually going through that process of painting a value study before the painting. Now I’m going to do it and see if it’s helpful to an experienced painter. I’m sure I’ll learn more than a thing or two.

    Let me add that I wish this article had included one painting with the contour initial drawing, with the black & white value study and the fnished painting so the viewer could see how simple (not detailed) your initial drawing was. Maybe next time.

  2. This is a great article with loads of useful tips for any painter.

    I too have not used this method, but I am going to try it in order to make and improvement in my paintings.

    I particularly like the tip about it being more importan to paint the value that you are seeing instead of the color. This make perfect sense to me.

  3. Great article and approach. I agree value sketches/paintings are critical to creating a great painting. I didn’t really realize this until I had a former teacher had us create a value scale and use this to evaluate the values in color photos. Then we painted a black and white value painting.

    I use Payne’s Grey to do this now. This helps me in two ways – I get a feel for the values I want in the painting and the brush strokes I may want to use to get the effect I want.