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How to Draw Value Studies: 8 Steps

Hey art pals! If you’ve been learning how to draw for a while, you’ve probably heard about value studies, also known as tonal drawings. They’re super helpful in expanding your value range and drawing with more depth and are widely considered necessary practice for anyone hoping to master drawing or painting.

Personally, doing value studies has transformed my drawing skills. To demonstrate, here’s a selection of my drawings from way back before I had practiced value studies.

As you can see, my drawings were rather ghostly – utterly pale and devoid of any contrast that was necessary to convey the depth of the forms. I pretty much struggled with drawing darker values and this caused my sketches to seem flat.

In comparison, here are some of my more recent sketches in which I have tried to push the values by applying what I have learned by practicing value studies over the last couple of years.

While admittedly there’s still so much I need to improve with respect to value drawing, I’m pretty thrilled with the progress so far.

So in this post, I am excited to share with you a worked example of my process for doing value studies from a photo reference that I have split into 8 simple steps, along with tips, resources, and exercises to help you make the most out of your practice.

The Eight-Step Process for Drawing Value Studies

1. Pick up a good reference.

Plaster cast of a sculpture of the head of Mrs. Russell by Rodin.

When doing value studies, opt for photo references with nice contrast and interesting tonal shapes so you can really appreciate the different transitions between the shadows and highlights.

Oh, and pick something that matches your skill level. No need for crazy foreshortening or anatomy and choose something you feel comfortable drawing structure-wise so you can focus on the values.

Need some inspiration? Check out my Pinterest board that has some nice references for doing value study practice.

2. Identify the major tonal shapes in your reference and observe the different types of shadows.

As beginners, we often underestimate the role of shadows in visualizing the shape of what we’re drawing. It’s important to observe not just the shapes of the forms but also the pattern of tones that you notice on and surrounding the drawing subject.

Before starting your drawing, here are some things you want to observe in a reference to help you plan your drawing:

  • The major shadow shapes appear on the surfaces that are turned away from the light source or are cast by objects blocking the light.
  • The core shadows visible along the terminator line.
  • Lighter shadows that receive reflected light from nearby objects and forms.
  • The darkest shadows trapped between surfaces and forms that don’t permit light to reach.

Here’s a quick guide on the different types of shadows and their characteristics that you might want to read if this step seems a little tricky to you.

3. Establish the basic structure of your drawing.

Before doing any detailed rendering work, be sure to nail down the basic structure first. Drawing accurate proportions and perspective is critical in this step so take some time to make sure you get these right.

Also, outline those major shadow shapes you identified earlier within the structure of drawing at this stage as it will help you to block in the shadows more easily in Step 5.

4. Prepare a value key of the tonal range.

A value key is useful in setting the range of values you want to explore in a drawing. It’s like a palette of greys, blacks, and whites for value drawings. Personally, I like to keep things simple with four tones – darkest shadows, lightest shadows, mid-tones, and the pure white of the paper.

I find drawing the whole value scale showing all transitions of values a bit of an overkill at this stage and keeping the the value key restricted to these broad groups helps me to keep the values more organized.

5. Block in the shadows shapes in a consistent tone of the lightest shadow.

At this stage of the drawing, you want to apply a consistent shade of tone defined for the lightest shadow in the value key in Step 4. For now, you can ignore the transitions between the shadows and group all shadows into a uniform tone.

Once you’re done, you’ll have two values on paper – the shadows and the whiteness of the paper. A sign of a good drawing? You should be able to read the major forms despite the lack of tonal variation because if the structure of the forms and shadow block-in is reasonably accurate, your brain is able to fill out the missing details.

Before pushing the values in the next steps, you can take a moment to reassess, simplify, redefine, or improvise for a better arrangement of shapes.

6. Darken the prominent shadows and tone down the intensity of shadows receiving reflected light

Time to deepen those shadows. Blend or erase with a kneaded eraser to add depth to your drawing. Don’t forget to tone down the intensity of shadows catching reflected light – it’s all about balance.

7. Render any half-tones and highlights

Grab your eraser and start carving out highlights. This is the part where your drawing truly comes alive.

Be cautious with half-tones though; it’s important to not overshade them so they don’t overpower the lightest shadows at this stage.

8 Refine the values and linework

In the final stretch, consider the overall balance of your drawing. Refine the values and linework accordingly. Your shading style is up to you – detailed or minimalist – but stick to the tonal hierarchy established in Step 4. That’s what holds the drawing together.

Looking back at my attempt, I feel I should have pushed the values further. 🙈 Not my most impressive value study but in my defense I always have a hard time drawing well when I know I have to record the whole process. Oh well. 😄

5 Beginner Exercises to Help You Improve Your Values

Here are some variations to practice value studies that I find helpful for beginner artists.

  1. Study other artists:
    • Dive into value sketches and paintings by other artists. It’s a great way to observe how they perceive and group tonal shapes, transitioning between light and shadow.
  2. Try a flipped value study:
    • Inspired by Betty Edwards, this exercise trains your eyes to recognize tonal shapes without letting preconceptions about what you’re drawing influence your observations.
  3. Value study on a toned paper:
    • Try doing a value study by toning your paper first by gently blending a layer of soft shading to achieve a constant mid-tone before any detailed rendering. For highlights on a self-toned paper, you can simply use an eraser.
    • Alternatively, you can draw on pre-toned paper with white chalk to create highlights. This exercise sharpens your focus on impactful shadows and highlights, speeding up your value studies.
  4. Create your still life:
    • Set up a simple still-life scene with veggies, fruits, and a white cloth. Natural light is your friend. Capture prominent darks and highlights in your scene. I find it best to set up still life scene by the window in a room that receives lots of natural daylight.
  5. Study the Bargue Plates:
    • Learn to draw convincing shadows by replicating plates from the Bargue drawing course. Basically, these plates are drawings of plaster casts of different statues showing an outline and a final drawing with shading.
    • It’s a fantastic way to learn blocking in shadow shapes because these drawings only use minimal shading to demonstrate the beautiful forms. The absence of colors in the references really supports an understanding of shadows for beginners and is also great for learning some anatomy while you’re at it.

And there you have it – my take on doing value studies. If you have any additional tips for doing value drawing practice, let us know in the comments below. Happy drawing! 😊