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Art Lesson: Color Vs. Value

written by: Nicole Hilsabeck • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 4/19/2013

Let your students explore the difference between emphasizing color or contrasting lights and darks!

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    Objective: Students will create two pieces of art emphasizing color and value, allowing them to define their personal preferences in artistic expression.

    Materials: Sample paintings or photos, simple still life arrangement or reference photos, paper, drawing or painting mediums such as pencil, pastel, charcoal, or paint, value scale if students do not have a lot of experience with value (shading, light, and dark)

    Time: This lesson may take two class sessions depending on the length of the class period.

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    Lesson Procedure:

    Step One: Teacher will introduce samples of famous works that emphasize either color or value and allow students to share their opinions of the pieces.

    Some great examples include Scholar Reading by Rembrandt Van Rijn (value), Tahitian Landscape 2 by Paul Gauguin (color), Bermuda by Winslow Homer (value), Flip Flops by Andy Warhol (color)

    Students might be interested in seeing paintings by artists who changed their style by emphasizing different elements:

    The Japanese by Henri Matisse (value)

    Woman with a Hat by Henri Matisse (color)

    The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh (value)

    Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (color)

    Step Two: Teacher will explain to students that they will be creating two pieces of art based on similar subjects. One will have an emphasis on value; the other will have an emphasis on color. Teacher will provide either a simple still life arrangement or reference photos with clear lights and darks and simple subjects for students to use. Students will begin with the exercise by creating a piece that emphasizes value, meaning that students will provide a combination of lights, medium shades, and darks to create the first piece of artwork. Students will begin sketching in forms based on the reference material. Note: if students are not experienced with using value, it may help to make a value scale of five shades, with the first shade being white (lightest light) and the fifth shade being as close to black as possible (darkest dark). Teacher should encourage students to use charcoal, pencil, or ink for the first piece, and to keep color to a minimum.

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    Step Three: Teacher will give students a set amount of time to work (anywhere from 25-40 minutes). After students have completed a piece that emphasizes value, students will start with fresh paper and sketch the same pieces, this time using color. Teacher should encourage students to use bright colors, and to think about color harmonies (use a color wheel if needed). Students can add some value to the piece, but should be more focused on the colors that capturing too many lights and darks.

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    Step Four: Upon completing their pieces, students will place them side by side on their desks for comparison. Students should make a few notes on separate paper to address the following questions:

    Which piece looks the most realistic?

    Which work has the most depth?

    Which piece catches your eye first? Why?

    Which piece gives you a sense of emotion? Why?

    Which method did you enjoy more, and which piece looks better to you? Why?

    Step Five: Teacher will ask students to share some of their works and answers to their questions. Students should come out of the discussion with the understanding that a focus on value lends itself to more realistic, depth-filled pieces, while a focus on color may flatten a painting out but can have more of a sense of mood or visual interest. Students should also understand that it is an artist’s choice whether or not to have high contrast or dominate colors, as these are tools an artist uses to express his or her style.

    Assessment: Ask students to bring in samples of work that emphasize either color or value. Post samples around the room, and open the next class by asking students to write a critique of several of the pieces, noting what elements the artists chose to use and how those choices contribute to the effect the works have on viewers.

    Now your students can see the works of other artists with a trained eye, and evaluate for themselves how artists are able to achieve their differing styles!