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The Secret to Realistic Painting: How to Master Value

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

When beginner artists start their adventure with digital painting, or painting in general, all they see are colors. Just as drawing is about lines, painting is about putting colors all around and making them look consistent together. The problem is, color is a much more complex issue than line. 

muddy color painting why

Those are the same colors! What is the difference between them? It's not weaker contrast, as you may think, and it's not as easy to fix. If you want to know how to get rid of this muddy look of your colors, first you need to go back to black and white. Follow me to make a discovery that will change your artistic perspective!

Value vs. Brightness

When you learn about painting, one of the first lessons is about value—black, white, and all the grays in between. You come to the conclusion that they're for black-and-white paintings, and go straight to colors that seem to be far more interesting.

what is value painting
A gradient of value and nine separate values

You learn that every Hue can be created out of three components: Red, Green, and Blue, and each of them may have a certain Brightness and Saturation. Just like in Photoshop's Color panel!

color panel photoshop brightness saturation hue value

Sure, you do start from black, but apart from this there is no use for grays in color. No "Value" slider for any of the hues! But we can use Brightness instead, right? Some programs even call it Value!

Let's try a little experiment. I've painted three spheres: red, green, and blue. I've shaded them in decreasing Brightness with every step—from 100% at the top to 50% in the shadow.

muddy color painting color mode grayscale photoshop

This is how the shade of red changes on the sphere; it looks exactly the same at other spheres. Notice that Brightness is the only thing that changes. Is this our Value, too?

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To see values in the picture, we can create a New Layer on the top, fill it with black, then change its Blend Mode to Saturation.

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But... what happened? The red sphere looks darker than green one, and the blue sphere is almost black! How is it possible if we used exactly the same Brightness for them? The Saturation mode takes away only, well, saturation—not brightness. So how did we lose it?

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If you paid attention to that lesson about three components making all the colors, you should guess the answer. 100% white is made of 100% bright Red, Green, and Blue. Obviously, 100% bright gray (white) is brighter than 100% bright red, green, or blue. The only solution is that there are two kinds of brightness, both included in the same slider.

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How can 100% brightness be brighter than some other 100% brightness?

Why? Just look at the RGB representation of white and red. 100% bright gray (white) is made of 255R, 255G, and 255B, while 100% bright red is made of 255R only. It's impossible for 255R to be the same brightness as 255R, 255G, and 255B all together!

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Of course, you can add more G and B to your red to make it brighter, but guess what happens then!

muddy color painting color mode grayscale photoshop brighter than 100

Saturation is a measure of the purity of a color. The lower the Saturation, the muddier the color. If you use 255R only, the Saturation is 100%—because it's as pure as can be. Its Brightness is also 100%—because it's as much R as can be.

When you desaturate something colorful, as we did with the spheres, its Saturation is reset—colors are converted to gray. 255R (being 100% bright red) can't make 100% bright gray, because it would be white then—and white needs 255 of every component to occur. So when you desaturate 100% red, its brightness gets reduced by the lacking 100% green and blue—two thirds of its full brightness.

Still, we don't get 33% bright red as a result. It's because Photoshop includes one more rule here—our eyes are not equally sensitive to every color. In short, Green seems the brightest to our eyes (59% of white), Red is the second one (30% of white), and Blue seems the darkest (11% of white). Does it make sense now?

When we desaturated the spheres, 100% bright red got reduced by 59% (brightness of the lacking 100% bright green) and 11% (brightness of the lacking 100% bright blue). 90% bright red got reduced by 53% (brightness of the lacking 90% bright green) and 10% (brightness of the lacking 90% bright blue). And so it goes!

If you sum all the brightnesses of the desaturated spheres, our original values magically come back:

why saturated darker

But... it's math, right? Artists don't count while creating! Still, all these numbers were necessary to explain how 100% Brightness gets brighter (!) when decreasing Saturation. 100% Brightness can't get any brighter—it's value that increases.

why saturated darker 2

So, Brightness = value only for grays. For every color (by color I mean something with Saturation and Brightness higher than 0) value is based on both Brightness and Saturation—with Saturation adding up to value when decreasing.

Why Is It So Important?

There can't be a realistic painting without proper values. Even when you experiment with color, you must know the rules you're breaking to make the style believable. When you know nothing about value, you just use colors as you see them in your palette—making them Brighter in light and less Bright in shadow. And then something very bad happens when you're trying to make yellow as dark as blue in shadow! 

The truth is that color makes a very small fraction of an image. A picture with proper values stands out on its own even in grayscale, and it will beat a colorful but value-ignorant picture every time. You can have a poor visual database, you may know nothing about anatomy, but if you master value, your pictures will be more eye-catching than the most refined sketches!

Beginner artists often start their picture in grayscale and add colors later, because this way they can safely focus on light and shadow. This is a great method—but only when you understand that light and value aren't the same.

muddy colors painting color mode grayscale photoshop brightness
All the colors don't get brightened equally between the light (A) and shadow (B). Yellow in shadow is brighter than blue in light! When you try to force equality between them by shading all the materials the same way and adding colors later, the effect is far from realistic.

This is the reason why we don't have a "Value" slider right beside (and not instead of) Brightness. Intuition tells us that something in light is always brighter than something in darkness, but it's very simple to prove otherwise—just put white card in shadow and black card in light. This is where value comes to help—it defines the brightness of an object in "neutral" lighting conditions. It simply means that some colors are brighter just like this, not because they're more illuminated than others.

The problem is our eyes can't tell value from brightness. We only notice various shades of gray, no matter where they come from. Moreover, the same object may appear bright or dark depending on the shade of its background! So it's not really about which shades you use—it's about how they all work together.

muddy colors painting color mode grayscale photoshop brightness 2
Even when you know they're the same, your eyes tell you something different

How to Learn to Make the Best of Value

Even when you know how value works and how to apply the rules to your paintings, it doesn't mean you know which values to use for an interesting effect. You probably see a photo or an illustration with very good lighting from time to time—why not learn from them?

When painting from a reference we tend to start with a sketch, and then we add details, one by one. The effect may be nice, but it doesn't really teach us anything about how the author planned it! Did they know where to put the proper values right from the start? How did they know they're going to work together? Not to mention that you have no idea where the author started, so you start from a random detail—and you can be sure that's not how you usually start your pictures.

To use a reference to learn about interesting use of values, we need to start from abstraction and then go into details—just as we would do with our own painting. Let me show you!

Step 1

Get a picture with interesting lighting and/or vivid colors, something you'd like to emulate in your works. I've found mine here, but you don't need to limit yourself to stock photos. As long as you don't post it anywhere, you can even study Mona Lisa—make old masters your teachers!

how to practice grayscale painting value photoshop reference

Step 2

Desaturate the colors as we did in the experiment before—this is the best method to achieve grayscale without disturbing values.

how to practice grayscale painting value photoshop reference 2

Step 3

Create a New Layer and fill it with white. Lower its Opacity to see the picture below only partially. Then create another New Layer and trace the picture. Yes, you heard right—tracing is not always a bad thing! Here we're learning about using values, so it would be a waste of time to practice copying lines.

However, if your goal is to learn how to paint without line art, skip this step. You will not find a better lesson than this!

how to practice grayscale painting value photoshop reference 3
Doesn't it look a bit creepy? It's because in reality lines are created by values, and they don't exist without them

Step 4

Select (Control-A) the picture, and then create a New File (Control-N)—the resolution will be copied. Come back to the original and copy the line art, and then paste it into the new file.

Go to Window > Arrange > 2-up Vertical. Both windows will be placed side by side, which is the best arrangement for working with a single reference. From now on, I'll be calling the window with a reference the original, and the other one the study.

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Step 5

Go to the original. Click the layer with the image and go to Filter > Convert for Smart Filters. This way you'll be able to change the setting of a filter multiple times after the filter has been applied.

Go to Filter > Filter Gallery and select the Cutout filter from the Artistic list. Change the Number of Levels to minimum, and give it the minimal Edge Simplicity, and maximal Edge Fidelity.

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The effect should be similar to this:

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Step 6

Go back to the study and create a New Layer under the line art. Now the most important part begins. Without the Eyedropper Tool, reproduce the shades from the original. You can use your favorite brush for it, or you can even block the shades with the Lasso Tool—whatever you would use for a normal painting. If you want to have the same brush as me, in this tutorial I've shown how to create it.

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At this stage you should see the whole artwork all the time—no zooming in!

The first thing you're learning here is to copy shades with your eyes. When you use the Eyedropper Tool, it takes away all the thinking from you—it's as if you were copying and pasting parts of a picture. It's turning yourself into a machine! If you want to take a lesson from this, reproduce the shades you see with your mind only. This way you'll understand which shades to use in the future, without any reference to look at.

Another thing you're learning is how to start a picture. Can you see where the light source is? Notice that skin reflects more light than shirt and hair—it's not because of their glossiness, but because of their value. Have you ever paid attention to the color of a material at this step? Well, you should from now on!

When we paint in grayscale, we often start by defining light and shadow, putting them uniformly everywhere. But why would you paint strong light at something that reflects almost none of it (like black)? It may feel awkward to plan such things at this early stage, but they're going to influence all the other stages—if you ignore them now, prepare for a lot of corrections later.

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It may be an early stage, but it doesn't mean that all the objects reflect light as if they were a single material!

Step 7

Go to the original and double click the filter name on the layer. Change the Number of Levels to 3 and come back to the study.

Notice how shades that have already been placed change when new ones are being added. This is an important lesson—all the shades should work in a team, not individually. When introducing a new one, you need to make sure that it fits the others, and, if needed, adjust them.

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Step 8

Change the Number of Levels to 4 and repeat. Adjusting goes on—as we're adding a brighter shade to the skin, we're also darkening the shirt to create three various values: one for shirt, one for hair, and one for skin.

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You may have an important question now: "How do I know which values to use for colors that I haven't painted yet?" When we are not certain how it is all going to look after adding the final "color" layer, we tend to rush with the grayscale—because we want to see what we're painting as soon as possible! Then we add that last, magic layer and... something doesn't work.

The answer is simple: it's not colors that matter in the picture—it's their value. You can plan the craziest color scheme, and it will work just right if you used proper values in the first place. And what are "proper values?" The ones that work well together already in grayscale!

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Notice that I used the most contrasting, complementary colors for the last two sets, and they still work great together!

When working in grayscale, don't rush to see how your picture will look in color. If it doesn't look good in grayscale, colors will not help at all! If you want to trick your mind, imagine that there will be no color layer, that grayscale is your final goal, and paint with values only until they look great on their own. Make the colors optional!

Step 9

Change the Number of Levels to 5. We should now have enough details to hide the line art. Change the Opacity to 20% in both files, and this time create a New Layer above it in the study. We're going to paint over it until it disappears, or at least can be safely discarded.

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Step 10

Notice that the filter sometimes loses the details that were there before.That's why at one point it's better to go straight for the maximal number of Levels and just finish the details. Line art should be redundant here!

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Step 11

When you feel all the details are defined, remove the filter from the original image. Use your favorite blending technique to get rid of sharp edges (I've used the Mixer Brush Tool here). Doesn't it look much better than the traced line art now?

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Step 12

Let's do an experiment here. Remove the desaturating layer and copy the colorful original picture. Paste it above the grayscale study and change its Blend Mode to Color. Surprisingly, the mode that so often washed off your colors, this time worked like a charm! If you ever wondered why the Color mode works so horribly, now you have the answer—it needs a proper base, and it's you who builds it.

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Step 13

If you want to make this exercise even more valuable, use different line art for your study and put the same values on it, step by step. This way you'll better understand how to use them on your own in the future.

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What Now?

I hope it was an interesting lesson for you! Before you go, take a few additional tips:

  • A study, no matter how beautiful and refined, is not art. You paint it to learn something, not to impress others. Don't post your studies online, and don't even work with such an intention—it will switch your focus to the wrong side and you will learn nothing.
  • When studying, focus only on the topic you're learning. Don't be hard on yourself for anatomical mistakes or wrong proportions—squint your eyes, see if the values look right, and keep going!
  • Details are not only "small objects" in the picture—the number of shades counts, too. Start with a limited number of them, and add them sparingly as you go further. The more of them there are, the more detailed the objects should be.
  • Save white and black for special occasions. They're very powerful when there's little of them in the picture—but when there's too much, they will look weak, with nothing more powerful to balance them.
  • Don't start with a perfect plan—define where there's something dark, where bright parts are (regardless of the lighting), and then adjust the shades to this very general plan. That first stage should look almost like the final version when you squint your eyes.
  • When learning from the real world, try to see values, not colors. Do it just after finishing a value study and see how easy it becomes for your mind after that exercise!
  • When you get good at these studies, go to the next step—don't use any filter, but still paint all the levels one by one as if they were there.
digital painting lifeless colors why lighting
It's not really lighting that gives that natural effect—it's values!
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