In the past couple weeks we talked about color and got a peek into what value is in relation to color. This week we are going to get a better understanding of the different types of value and how they can express feelings.

Value is the lightness or darkness within an artwork, design, or picture. Most of the time, an artwork would have a good mix of both light and dark values. In fact, that is a way to make sure that your artwork is well balanced.

Elements of Design: How the Value in a Photo or Design can Express Feeling

A value scale can be used to discover just how many values that you may need in your artwork, design, or photo. The more steps in your value scale, the more realistic it will look. In graphic design, you tend to have a smaller range of values, which would mean less steps in your value scale.

Sometimes you can have an artwork that has mainly dark or mainly light values within it and cut out the middle values. In that case, you may be looking at an artwork with mostly low key or high key tones.

Low key means that your artwork, design, or photo has mostly dark values, called shades. Many times, an artwork like this can have a way of looking ominous or scary.

High key means that your artwork, design, or photo has mostly light values, called tints. These artworks have a way of feeling light hearted and airy.

Let’s x-ray some examples of value in art, design, and photography to see how it is used. Note that MOST digital art, designs, and photography you come across will have a range of values and that the examples below display extreme lights and darks for effect.

Digital Art

Elements of Design: How the Value in a Photo or Design can Express Feeling - Lynn Chen

High Key: Lynn Chen’s work is characterized by lightheartedness and often includes a cartoon Corgi. The image above shows rather high values throughout the artwork. This emphasizes the lighthearted mood that Chen creates in her work.

Elements of Design: How the Value in a Photo or Design can Express Feeling - Tracie Ching

Low Key: Tracie Ching’s movie poster remake is meant to be dark and sinister, so the dark shades used for the bulk of the image serve this purpose very well. The black of the background even blends into the black of the character’s hair, which aids in the mystery.

Graphic Design

High Key: The apple logo created by Rob Janoff has undergone very few changes since its creation in the 1970s. The latest redesign still has the same shape and it’s still instantly recognizable, but it has undergone a color change. The newest logo is characterized by a silver/chrome color. In this case, light values of this color scheme were used to emphasize the color of the computers that they are so famous for producing.

Low Key: Our low key example also takes us back to the 1970s; this time for an album cover. (Yes, those old clunky plastic things that people used to listen to music on…) The “Unknown Pleasures” album cover shows light white lines on a black background. The low key values here help to aid the mystery hinted in the title…unknown…


Note: Both of the photos below are in black and white. It is a lot easier to see tonal values when your images are presented without color.

Dorthea Lange’s work was often centered around the suffering of the lower class. You will often see her work from the 1930s focused on people surviving the dust bowl in the rugged midwest. It was a hard time for many Americans as there was little food and the lands the people lived on didn’t seem to want to produce anything. The high key values in the image above actually show the desolate nothingness of the land. The abandoned house sits alone and the failed planting is still evident in the foreground.

As a landscape photographer, Ansel Adams photographed multiple National Parks in America. In the photo above, the low key values are informational. They tell us that the day is fading and the storms are coming. 

Download the FREE reflection worksheet that goes along with this article below. This reflection is available in both Word and Google Doc; click the button below and enter your email!

Leave a Reply