Correctly identifying and simplifying value relationships in a landscape is one of the top 5 keys to realism in an oil painting. It’s easy to get overwhelmed though because there are an infinite number of values when we look at a mountain scene or a vast forest of trees.

Norway Landscape Lofoten

Norway Landscape Lofoten

As artists, we can’t capture every nuance or value shift that we see in nature. It’s simply not possible with paint.

Besides, who would want to spend their whole life working on one painting? That’s what it would take to try and capture every value we see in a typical landscape setting.

If we can’t paint every value, then what can we do if we want to create a realistic painting of trees or any other subjects?

Let’s discuss the 3 steps artists use to identify, simplify, and correctly use values in a landscape painting.

Step 1 – Simplify Value Relationships

In the photo above of mountains and ocean coast in Lofoten, Norway there is stunning contrast and color from the setting sun. Just thinking of sorting out all those different values makes my head spin.

This is a good time to relax and close our eyes.

Whoa, I didn’t mean to take a nap.

Close your eyes just a little – maybe halfway – just until your eyelashes begin to touch. That’s called squinting.

The first thing we want to do is identify which value is the darkest and which is the lightest in our landscape.

Let me give you an idea of what that will look like. I’ll start by turning the landscape photo above into black and white. The reason for that is because color can be deceptive – sometimes a strong yellow or orange will look brighter in value than it actually is.

Norway Landscape Lofoten black and white

Now, we’ll blur that image until most of the details disappear and we’re left with big shapes of dark and light.

Norway Landscape Lofoten black and white squint blur

That’s approximately what we will see when we squint. This helps us identify the darkest dark and the lightest light in the painting.

Yes, there are a couple of places that have the same ‘darkest’ and ‘lightest’ value. We only need to identify the darkest and lightest values as a reference. That way we can compare any other values we see against those.

Norway Landscape Lofoten Lightest Darkest Values.2

That’s how we simplify and maintain correct value relationships while we paint.

If we wonder how dark to paint a tree branch, we simply refer back to our darkest value and see how the two values compare. That’s a great way to make sure we don’t get our values too dark or too light as objects recede into the distance.

Something to keep in mind – squinting distorts values. Squinting makes most values darker than they really are.

Yep, we are told to squint even though squinting throws off some of the values we see.

We do not squint to determine every value we will paint! We squint primarily to discover the lightest and darkest values. It’s also handy for grouping values that are close to one another into a few major shapes rather than a bunch of small distracting shapes. (and it’s good for eliminating distracting details)

We identify the darkest and lightest values so we can judge every other value in relation to those two. No other value will be darker or lighter than those.

Step 2 – Dominant Values

Have you heard of the principle of dominant values? If not, it’s a handy idea for making our paintings visually powerful.

We simply need to have one value be dominant. Let me explain.

Have you ever seen a Robert Motherwell painting? The strength in his work is the hierarchy of values – he makes one value dominant over all other values.

Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell At Five in the Afternoon 90×120 inches 1971


In his acrylic painting At Five in the Afternoon, a dark value is the dominant one, followed by a light value. He adds a few smidges of medium value just to shake things up a bit.

A good ‘rule of thumb’ for a more invigorating design and value pattern is to keep the dominant value larger in the painting than the other two values combined.

It’s the same idea we find recommended in many of the principles of art – one dominant focal point; big, medium and small shapes; diversity of scale (like Edgar Payne placing figures near the base of a cliff to show how large the cliff really is); etc.

Variety is the spice of life and art.

Besides that, when one value dominates in a painting there is greater focus and clarity for the viewer.

squares black and grey

Evenly dominant value squares black and grey

We could turn those two boxes above into anything – an ocean and stormy sky; a field of dirt and the side of a barn.

With both boxes the same size which is the artist telling us is most important? There’s no way to tell. We need to make one box more dominant than the other.

dominant value squares black and grey

dominant value squares black and grey

Now, admittedly, both images are fairly boring, but hopefully you get the idea.

Of course, when we talk about dark, light and medium values in painting we are referring to relative values. In a high key painting (a painting that looks bright and light in value) the darkest shadow value may be only a 3 on the value scale (1 being the lightest and 9 being the darkest).


painting of values

Sun Showers 20×24 – oil painting by Bill Inman

In Sun Showers above, the painting is dominated by a dark overall value or key. The painting is not dark like a Rembrandt background, but compared to the light in the distance, the painting’s ‘key’ value is darker.

The small isolated brightness behind the darker forest shadows creates drama in the painting. Keeping the dominant values darker allows the smaller light value shapes to stand out with forceful contrast.

Step 3 – Conservation, Suppression or Elimination of Values

What is ‘Conservation of Values’? It’s the elimination of most of the values we see down to a handful.

Remember when we said that it is impossible to reproduce all the values in a typical landscape? As artists, it’s our job to decide which values to keep and how many to use.

Stapleton Kearns said Howard Pyle was quoted:
2 values in a painting – makes a strong and powerful picture
3 values – painting is still good
4 or more – throw it out or start over

That’s probably an exaggeration, but it’s good to think about. That idea will help keep our paintings from getting too busy with lots of little value shifts (or details).
Look at the example below of Pyle’s elimination principle in action: (the text in quotes I found in an excellent essay James Gurney wrote for about Howard Pyle’s philosophy of art)


study of painting

Study for Marooned – by Howard Pyle

Pyle began with this black and white study depicting a pirate marooned on a sandbar. We can clearly see that the pirate is the center of interest. We also quickly guess at what the story might be.
Could Pyle make the image stronger?

‘He urged his students “If an object in the foreground of your picture looks too big, make it bigger. If it looks too small, make it smaller”.’

He believed not only in the conservation of values, but of the elimination of anything that distracted from the message of the painting. When he finally created the oil painting Marooned he took his own advice.


finished painting

Marooned – oil painting by Howard Pyle

There was nothing wrong with the study but look at how much more dramatic the finished painting’s design became. The light value area is the largest, the middle value area is second in size and the dark values are small yet powerful against the background.

“The fewer tones (values) the simpler and better your pictures,” Pyle said. Pyle recommended lightening the light areas and darkening the dark areas, so that the lights and darks were distinct and merged to make larger tonal shapes. By deliberately placing two shapes of similar value adjacent to each other, the shapes formed a larger unit. “Put your white against white, middle tones (groups) against grays, black against black, then black and white where you want your center of interest,” Pyle advised. “This sounds simple but is difficult to do.”

So, how many values should we use? I don’t think there’s a magic number of values for a successful painting.

Richard Schmid recommends using 5 or fewer values (except in the transitions and softening of edges between shapes). Dan Gerhartz and Schmid both teach students to use color temperature changes instead of value changes.

cool shifts of color

Gerhartz Dan Dancing on Air 26×40 oil painting

Look at the folds in the ballerina’s dress. Dan used warm and cool color shifts to create ripples, rather than using the same color and simply changing the value.

detail of painting

Gerhartz Dan Dancing on Air 26×40 oil painting detail

It’s much more interesting to look at all those fun colors than the same color in different values.

The key to value conservation is to use as few values as necessary. The more we simplify and combine smaller value shapes into larger value shapes the more clearly and vividly our message will speak to the viewer.


1. Squint to simplify

2. Use a dominant overall value to create drama

3. Conserve or eliminate values down to a handful in each painting

This is not a set of rules – just some helpful ideas that might save a viewer (and an artist) from boredom. If you are feeling stuck, or your painting seems lackluster, maybe these will help rejuvenate your art.

The real key is to experiment and try out different ideas.

Study the works of master’s paintings in museums and shows. What pieces grab you and don’t let go?

Try to identify what it is about those paintings that creates such powerful images. Do they use only a few strategic values in their paintings?

Painting values correctly is one of the more important principles to master. When the values are working we can use almost any color we want.

What are some of your favorite tips for identifying and simplifying values in your paintings?


Stapleton Kearns’ blog link –
James Gurney’s essay link –

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