Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Don't Forget to Evaluate Value

Spring Swing

My personal opinion is that value is the most frequently overlooked element of design. Most people, especially beginners, go directly to color and put a great deal of thought into those relationships but are often disappointed in how the relationships work or don't work. While there are people who have a great eye for color and value, if you are not one of those people I'm going to share my best tip to begin to train your eyes and your brain to see this quality in your work and be able to see the value. The secret is Desaturation.

The image at the top of the page was actually designed with value before color was introduced. That is not how I generally work but I was curious if I could do that. I drew a composition, photographed it and loaded it into the computer. I then filled the various shapes with value. Once I had the value distributed to my likeing I used a function in Photoshop called Color Balance and introduced colors. Using the Magic Wand, I selected specific areas and colored each one. Next I went to my fabric and pulled colors that were as close in hue and value as I could find and I made the piece from those fabrics.

Looking at the piece today I see areas I would change due to value but overall it works.

Spring Swing - Desaturated

Desaturation is simply the elimination of hue (color) which leaves you with the amount of black or white that was in the color. This can be accomplished by using the Black/White function on some cameras or by taking a photograph of your fabrics or work and then applying the Desaturate function which is available in Photoshop or some other image manipulation software.

If you use Photoshop:

  • Take a photo of the fabric or work, Open the image in Photoshop
  • Under the heading of Image, choose Mode, make sure the image is in RGB
  • Go back under Image and choose Adjustments, select and apply Desaturate
Your color image will be transformed into a shades of gray image and you can see where you have no lights, no darks or generally how your Values are distributed.


Until today I had never looked at Passion in black and white and was pleased to find that the image and the composition stands up very well. The most interesting thing is the small turquoise element. When you look at the image in color that little elements stands out but look at the black and white image and you can see how close the value is to the area it is connected to. Interesting.

Passion - Desaturated

Most of the older digital cameras have a function which allows you to see images through the lense as black and white and if your camera has this function that is very handy. You don't even have to take a photograph. Unfortunately, the camera companies now don't usually include that feature on the less expensive camera models.

Being able to evaluate the Value before you begin to cut your fabric is a great asset. I have made grouping of fabrics and looked at them before I ever put anything on the wall and realized that it was a dull palette (no lights) or too dark etc.


The last example I'm sharing today is a more recent piece titled Shelter. This work has a very narrow color palette, lots of texture and complex relationships. Again, I confess that I had not looked at it in B&W but was pleased when I saw a reporduction of the work in a brochure which was in B&W and I could see that the marks and composition was clear and readable.

Shelter - Desaturated

You may have seen one of those little ruby red pieces of plexiglass that are sold as value finders. If you have 'em use'm - but they do not work with red fabrics and many oranges and browns.

Have fun and Remember....I thank you for spending time at Studio 24-7 and I love hearing from you. Best of all....COMMENTING IS FREE!


  1. Value is something I'm going to be paying attention to going forward. I have been weak in that area and know that I need to work on that aspect of my work. I'll try the Photoshop trick - thanks!

  2. Thank you Martha for commenting. Look on my FB link as several people have made other suggestions as to how you can evaluate value and value distribution. It's good to have more than one way to work.

  3. Terry, this is a fantastic article. I know I should be doing this with every piece I compose and I get lazy (or worried at what I might find), that I often don't.

    I love that you created a value piece first and then translated it, such a cool idea. Mind if I borrow it for some wholecloth surface design work? ;)

  4. Hey Judi! Thanks for the enthuastic comment. I'd love for you to try the "reverse" approach to dealing with value and I hope you will share it with me.

  5. My first art quilting teacher, Sandi Cummings, drummed value into us - I always remember her saying value does all the work and color gets all the credit.

  6. Gerrie, That's a great saying. I'm going to remember that one for future use.

    Thank you to Quilt or Dye for commenting!!!

  7. Hi Terry, This technique is a good one, and I've used it for a few years. In my experience it can give really skewed results with certain yellows and golds, though. As with all techniques, we must keep using the artist's eye!

  8. I also wanted to say that though I've checked a composition with Desaturate, I haven't used it as a starting point. I think your results are fascinating!

    And considering how the turquoise in the red composition disappears when only value is considered--in that particular composition, clearly value isn't doing ALL the work!

  9. In a class with Hollis Chatelaine, regarding value, she said: "The brights will confuse you." Your turquoise bit illustrtes that very well.

    I have a piece of green plexi as well as red plexi. Between them, I usually get a good result.

  10. Thank you Carol and My Croft.

    You are both correct about the techniques. They are tools to help you see but in the end you have to learn to depend on your "eye".

    I loved the observation about the turquoise bit. You correct that there is more going on here than the value! The values of the two pieces are almost exactly the same but the intensity of the colors and the play of the reddish fabric and the turquoise is what creates the pop.

    I have a piece of green plexi but I haven't really utilized it. I'll get it out and give it a try.

    I appreciate your great comments.

  11. Thanks for posting this great post! I learnt about value in a swap at my local guild, "The value of value". It was a simple block, but you had to be careful about your lights and darks. Since this swap, I almost always judge my selections by value, and it improves my designs - a lot. Mostly I just squint my eyes, or I try to see the fabric pile in twilight. Your idea of designing a quilt based on values and adding the colours later is something I will try - sounds like fun! Again, thanks!

  12. Thank you quilthexie! Value is a powerful element and when you get the "hang" of how to utilize it can add greatly to the success of your composition!

  13. Great post. I was trying to explain the importance of value to someone last night, you have done such a great job of it I'm going to send her here.

  14. Hi Linda! Thank you for commenting! My explaination is a very simple one but sometimes simple is just what we need ;-)

  15. Your thoughts on desaturating a photo of a piece are very helpful, both as a jumping off point for new work and for self-critique. In the case of critique, I can see using desaturation both in the midst of making a piece to see if the piece works and at the end as an evaluation of success. Thanks for this idea!

  16. Hi Vivien! I'm so happy this is of interest to you. You are so right. Check the value as you go along and avoid the blassssz when you are finished! I appreciate your commenting.

  17. I'm always happy to see the word spread about the importance of values in our work. Quite a few years ago I came across information in the book, "Color and Fiber" that translates to:

    "The first visual response is to value contrasts rather than to colors."

    Colors have "local" meanings depending upon the culture whereas the relationship of values (lightness/darkness) is a universal language of moods to which each of us responds. I've written about that aspect here:

  18. Hi Nellie! Thank you for your great comment. I don't know what happened to my first response to you a few days disappeared!

    You are absolutely right in your observations about color and value. It is basic and important information that seems to often be overlooked. Please come again.

  19. Jane Dunnewold, Claire Benn, and Leslie Morgan talk about focal points or what they call doors into the composition in their book "Finding Your Own Visual Language." That small turquoise bit in Passion is the door. Since it's common to use value contrast for the focal point, it's great to see your use of color. I love how the door disappears in the desaturated version. Thanks for a great blog article that will keep us thinking!

  20. Thank you Connie! I've not heard that point of reference before but I like it. Indeed, without the turquoise "bit", it would be hard to enter that space. I appreciate your wonderful comment.

  21. Terry, it's so fun to see your work here... I've seen it on pinterest and have loved it!! The great thing about truthful information is it "holds up" what I mean by that is it's now 2104 this original post was in 2010 and the information is just as relevant today as it was then. I'm taking a Lisa Call online class and she referred to this post in one of the many great learning emails she sends us. I''ve been working on value, and trying to figure out how to stream line this process... and then I realized my iphone (you gotta love it!) can take a photo in many color options and black and white is one of them!!! That has really helped me because I can lay out my choices and look at it there to train my eyes. Thanks for the great information!! Love your work.

    1. Hi Donna, Thanks for your email. I'm so happy to know that you and others are reading my postings. Value can be tricky and surprising. Good tip about the iphone. Keep up the good work and thank you for your support of my work.