The Alphabet of Art

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Value refers to the amount of contrast between dark and light. With strong value there is maximum contrast, and the result is an emotionally active and dynamic picture. With lesser value (grayed images) there is less contrast and a more passive, static and decorative effect.

Maximum contrast of Value (dark and light) places objects in the foreground of a picture, while minimum contrast (gray) places objects in the background.

Type Contrast Resulting Attributes
Dark and Light Maximum Emotionally Active
Esthetically dynamic
Spatially in depth
Gray Minimum Emotionally passive
Esthetically decorative
Spatially static



Of all the Elements, Value is the most important in creating mood.

Movies and television employ value to create the proper mood for the story they are telling. For a mystery or thriller, strong contrast and generally dark value is used. For comedy, generally less contrast and lighter values are used.

The image at right is from the film noir classic, The Asphalt Jungle.

Still from The Asphalt Jungle, directed by John Houston, 1950

The Italian late-Renaissance painter, Carravagio, used Value in a way similar to film noir directors. In the Calling of St. Matthew, high contrast of light and dark are used to dramatize the scene and invoke a moment of startling spiritual intensity.

Carrivagio, The Calling of St. Matthew

Rembrandt is the master artist of Value. He painted "The Anatomy Lesson" with the light shining on the people in the painting but originating from outside the painting. This creates less than maximum contrast.

Rembrant, The Anatomy Lesson

Then, with the "Night Watch," Rembrandt used light values for what he wanted the viewer to see, and kept the other parts of the picture in dark values.

Rembrant, The Night Watch

To create his greatest effects, Rembrandt ignored the usual way of painting with the light coming from outside the picture, and painted as if the source of the light was from within objects themselves. Once he started this mental origin of light, it became imperative to change the composition to show how the light he was painting could be used to best advantage. In the "Night Watch," he created a dramatic effect by the maximum use of Value, in which the light comes from the figure of a child.

Rembrandt received his most lucrative commissions from the Guilds, all member of which wanted to appear equally important in the paintings. In the "Anatomy Lesson," the men are therefore all painted in approximately equal value. But this is not the case in the "Night Watch," where only a few of the men are adequately illuminated.

Gray is the opposite of strong contrast in Value. Gray is used to show distance, and to modify distant naturalistic forms, as many Oriental paintings.

In the Chinese landscape at right, the low-contrast gray effect is used to reduce the depth and make the picture more static, emotionally passive and decorative.

In interior decoration, gray can be used to provide a more spacious feeling, especially when combined with cool colors.


Click and drag the spotlight to increase the Value of different areas of the picture.

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Notice that areas that are highlighted (and have stronger Value) automatically draw the eye.

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