Using a Black and White Photo as a Painting Aid

I’ve noticed that beginning painters seem to ignore light and dark values in their paintings.

There’s so much to learn and get comfortable with, and because painting is all about color, students are so busy learning about mixing colors that they tend to overlook the range of values in their work.

I might suggest that folks do a value study of their composition before commencing to paint, but unless you’re a serious student working pretty much full time on learning your craft, this is not going to appeal to you.

The average hobby painter doesn’t have a whole lot of time to devote to their art, so they’re anxious to get paint on their support. However, one still needs to be vigilant in creating the necessary lights and darks that take the painting from being a merely a good beginner’s piece to one of an advanced student.

An Easy Way To See The Range Of Values

Whether you’re working from a photo or an actual composition, it’s not too hard to get a handle on how light and, more importantly, how dark to go with values in your painting.

If you’re working from a photograph, print a copy of it in black and white. If you’re working with an actual still life setup in your studio, take a digital photo of your composition and use your editing software to save a copy as a black and white image. Then you can print it out to use as a value reference.

How I Use Photos For References

I tend to use my laptop to display my photos, using a feature that allows me to magnify the image so I can hone in on details with greater clarity. I set my laptop just to my left on my worktable, so I can continually check that my colors are correct. By using this software feature, I am easily able to keep checking that my drawing is correct and that I’m getting the colors just right. I’ve been doing a lot of botanical florals, which require a good deal of precision, so I’m forever zooming in and out of the photo checking and double-checking my work.


I use a black and white laser printer, so I always print out a copy of the photo to use as a value reference. It’s sitting directly in front of me, just past my painting surface, so I can also keep an eagle eye out for how light or dark details in my composition need to be painted.

It’s really quite amazing how dark some areas need to be portrayed. If you’re not convinced, try it with a couple of eggs on a white background with a definite light source. It’s a really good way to get a feel for contrasts in light and dark.

It’s still a good learning exercise to draw a value study, but I know I don’t want to take the time, and I’ll bet you don’t either. However, if you find yourself sitting for what seems an eternity in a waiting room, an unmoving line at a store or waiting for soccer practice to let out, use that time to do a quick value study. It will enhance your ability to see lights and darks and will help improve the quality of your paintings.

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