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Color Series: Starting With Value

by Taylor Slattery | September 16, 2021

For designers and artists alike, color is the most powerful tool at our disposal for eliciting an emotional response from our audience. However, it’s also the most subjective, making it one of the harder subjects to navigate. Those with an eye for color manage to create captivating compositions with ease, a skill that can seem elusive to those struggling to make decisions that feel “right”.

To clear the air, right and wrong don’t have a place in the conversation when it comes to color. Unless you’re trying to paint photo-realistically, you can take any liberties you like. The same goes for color in design. The meanings we attach to color stem from personal experiences and cultural environments. It’s through these unique circumstances that we develop our preferences and also why making objective color decisions can be difficult.

However, there is a more functional component of color that we can use to aid our decision-making—value. Beneath the ultramarine blues and chrome yellows lies a subtle map that helps our eyes to make sense of images. Desaturate an image and you can see it clearly. It’s through value that we can understand where one shape starts and another begins as well as how things are oriented in space.

In the hands of the designer or artist, value can also be used to control focus. With value, we can tell the viewer what is important or where to look, as well as impart subtle clues to the object’s relationships. By first creating a functional framework beneath the color, we can ensure that when we do add this more emotional component, the two will work in harmony towards achieving the same goal.

When working, separating your work into stages is helpful so you can focus your efforts on a single element at a time. For an illustration, completing a value comp before moving on to working in color sets clear intentions and provides you with a reference to check your color choices against. For design, working in value first makes it easier to make color choices that adhere to your intended hierarchy.

Let’s take this sketch and see how we can change the focal point simply by changing the value arrangement. A common term used to explain this type of design thinking is a “123 read”, or where our eyes go first, second, and third. As humans, our eyes are naturally drawn to certain objects like faces and eyes, but we have an even stronger draw to high contrast. The highest contrast possible would be 100% white next to 0% black. With this in mind let’s see what we can make.

In this first set, I’ve used the strongest contrast to separate the figure from the background while using a relatively low contrast between the figure and the floating eyeballs. This has the effect of gluing the two together in space and merging their silhouettes—squint your eyes and you’ll see what I mean. Also notice how the lighter value figure against the dark background on the right appears to be coming forward, while the figure on the left has the opposite effect, receding into the distance.

In this set I’ve made the eyes the focal point, giving them the greatest contrast, while bringing those of the figure and the background closer together. Again, notice how value affects our perception of detail and distance. Although our eyes are drawn to the eyes in both images due to their high contrast, the choice of value has a markedly different effect in each.

In this last set, I’ve taken the reverse approach to our first example by lending the greatest contrast to the figure while bringing the value of the eyes closer to that of the background. If you squint, the values of the eyes will merge with the background but the effect is much lesser when compared with the first. This is because of the overlaps between the figures and the eyes, which also play a large role in our perception of space.

In the next installation, we’ll discuss how to use these images as maps to guide our color choices. For the time being, hopefully, these examples will get you thinking about the role value plays in our ability to control focal points and tell stories.


Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.


If you are interested in learning more about using color, Sessions College offers a Color Theory course and many other graphic design courses for students at all levels. Contact Admissions for more information.

This blog is powered by Sessions College, the leading online school of visual arts.

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