Tour + Workshop = DESIGN: Value

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, October 27, 2006

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Other

Subject Area

  • Arts

Lesson Time

Two fifty-minute class periods


At first glance value seems to be an obvious and elementary component of every design or artwork we look at. It is second nature to most of us to simply acknowledge the lights and darks of a painting or design as being integral to it and to never give it another thought. It is critical, however, that the aspiring artist or designer develops the ability to separate value from all the other design components and to begin to register an incremental and relative reading, rather than a general value reading, consequently being able to translate this knowledge into the application of value through color which is the most difficult skill to master.This lesson is designed to simplify the complex world of value through the presentation and discussion of the painting, "Two Girls with Sunbonnets in a Field" by Winslow Homer, and by creating a value scale; a tool displaying a range of values between black and white, designed to help quantify values thus enabling the young artist to make decisions about their application of value and ultimately color.The students will come full circle in their understanding of value as the closing discussion ties together the making of the value scale with their results when applying it to the Winslow Homer painting.

National Standards


By participating in this project students will be able to:
  • evaluate color as value rather than only as a dark or light color of a certain hue
  • observe a work of art or design and 'draw' out the element of value even if the work  is composed of many colors
  • understand that there are tools available to assist them as they learn to make artworks and designs; that art is not the exclusive domain of those with talent


  • Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran Tourism and the American Landscape by Davidson/McCarron-Cates; Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum pg. 121 plate 2. Winslow Homer Two Girls with Sunbonnets in a Field, ca. 1877-78. Oil on canvas.
  • Color, A course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors by Betty Edwards; Tarcher/Penguin


  • graphite pencil and 12" ruler to measure and use as straight edge
  • white tempera paint and black tempera paint
  • mixing pan with minimum #10 wells/divisions
  • water container and water
  • 1" flat watercolor brush for painting and 2 cheap bristle mixing brushes per student
  • sponge, approximately 3 x 3"
  • paper towels
  • hole punch 3/4" diameter
  • marker, black
  Materials prepared in advance for the students:
  • white illustration board 7.5" long x 5.75" wide, divided down the middle by 3/4" strip of masking tape


value: a. degree of lightness or darkness in a color
b. the relation of light and shade in a painting, drawing, or the like
hue, middle value gray, relative value, incremental, 'eyeball' or estimate, saturated color


Each student will have the above listed art supplies at their seat.
Presentation of exemplar and motivation
  • The teacher will write the definition of value on the board and explain it to the class. value: a. degree of lightness or darkness in a color
    b. the relation of light and shade in a painting, drawing, or the like
  • The teacher will present a finished value scale, pointing out all of its physical aspects such as the number of values 1 through 10 and how the scale can be used. The teacher will also point out that an optical fluting is taking place as the scale lightens from rectangle 6 to 10 and darkens from 5 to 1, the result of equal incremental lightening or darkening of values.
  • With the completed value scale, the teacher will present an introductory demonstration of how to use the scale to determine values in the color reproduction of the Winslow Homer painting "Two Girls with Sunbonnets in a Field," noting that a more complete demonstration will take place when they are ready to use their value scales.
  • The teacher will then present a value scale template lined off in 10 rectangles with black/value1 and white/value10 painted in appropriate rectangles.
  • The teacher will proceed to mix the middle gray/value 5, painting the appropriate rectangle and explaining how to 'eyeball' the value.
  • The teacher will continue to mix one or two more incrementally lighter values and paint them into the appropriate rectangles.
  • The teacher will demonstrate that paint is darker in value when wet than dry by painting a bit over a sample area already dry.
  • The teacher will apprise the students that it may be difficult to see if their values are working until the scale is reasonably developed reminding the students that they can easily paint over a value that isn't working with the whole value scale.
  Step-by-step process of the activity: Part I
  • Each student will mark the measure of 1.5 inches four times across the length of the construction board and draw a line across the width of the board at each of those measure marks.
  • The students will then put black paint into one well on their mixing pan and fill another pan with white paint.
  • The students will paint pure white/value10 in the top right rectangle and wash their brush well and dry it on the sponge
  • The students will then paint pure black/value1 in the top left rectangle and wash their brush well and dry it on the sponge.
  • * note: Students will be instructed to paint all rectangles beginning at the edge near the masking tape, allowing the brush to go over the tape and to paint away from the tape to the edge of the board. When the tape is removed after all rectangles are painted it will leave a clean edge and create a white unpainted area down the center of the board.
  • In a mixing well 5 wells from the white well students will mix a fare quantity of middle gray/value 5 and will essentially 'eyeball' this value; then paint it into the 4th rectangle down from the black rectangle and the very last one on the left side.
  • The student will take one half the amount of the middle gray/value 5 paint mixture and put it into another well.
  • Students will then proceed to mix, in separate wells, small amounts of white paint to lighten the middle gray/value 5 in equal increments to create values 6, 7, 8, 9.
  • note*: These mixtures need to be saved in case the values need adjustments so if the student will mix them in sequential wells they will not confuse the number values of each well.
  • Value 6 will be painted in the rectangle opposite middle gray/value 5.
  • Values 7, 8, and 9 will be painted toward the white rectangle/value10.
  • *note: The students will 'eyeball' the values making the increments as equal as possible. If the values are correct an optical 'fluting' will occur as the eye travels from one value to the next. If the fluting does not occur the value needs adjustment and repainting.
  • Using the reserved middle gray/value 5 the student will begin adding black to create values of equally darker increments, again reserving the incremental value mixtures to allow for easy adjustment.
  • Once the scale successfully graduates up and down in equal value increments, the students will use the hole punch to punch a hole approximately 1/2" in from the edge, and centered within each rectangle.
  • The student will give value numbers from 1 to 10 to each rectangle.
  • Lastly, the masking tape can be removed carefully.
  Step-by step-process of the activity: Part II (Probably requires a second workshop. Or to complete in an hour, a commercially made value scale can be used allowing you to skip Part I.)
  • The teacher will demonstrate the following activity explaining that the values of colors can be determined by looking through the holes punched into the different values on the scale, trying each value until you find the value that fits or contrasts the least with the color viewed.
  • Using the color reproduction of the Winslow Homer painting the students will first squint while looking at the painting to get an overall sense of value changes in the painting. Then they will view areas of the painting through the holes in their value scale and make a determination of the values of those particular colors and marking the value number on that location.
  • Using the black and white reproduction of the same painting the students will repeat the squinting and scale viewing exercise and mark the corresponding value numbers onto the areas viewed.
  • The students will compare their value notations on the color reproduction to their notations on the black and white reproduction.
  • The students can also compare their value determinations with their classmates.
  • Students and teacher will discuss the ease or difficulty of mixing equal value increments and handling of paint, including thoughts on what they might do differently next time.
  • Students and teacher will discuss the exercise of viewing the value of the color reproduction versus the black and white reproduction comparing the differences and similarities of the value notations made on each image.
  • They will then enter into a discussion on how value plays a part in the Homer painting; what does value convey; hour of day, depth of field, quality of light or shadow, compositional direction, perspective, etc.


  • The students have successfully learned the objectives of this lesson if they were able to make a finished value scale exhibiting equal incremental value changes and subtle optical fluting.
  • Success will also be exhibited if the student is able to make constructive comparisons between their value notations on the color reproduction and on the black and white reproduction.
  • If the value notations on the color reproduction are comparable to those on the black and white reproduction, then a high level of understanding of value as found through color is exhibited. If the notations of the color reproduction and the black and white reproduction are not close in values, the student will have the opportunity to continue to use the value scale to practice seeing closer value comparisons when viewing colors.

Enrichment Extension Activities

  • Students can move on to create a value scale with different pigments and gain a  further understanding of color and value.
  • Students can work on copying from the Winslow Homer painting and experience the effect of mixing and applying his colors and values.
  • Students can develop a painting of a simple still life lit in fairly high contrast and use only one hue and its values from lightest to darkest to create the image.

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