Exploring Value Contrast in Art & Design


Understanding the role that value contrast plays in a human’s ability to see can help you when creating visual information (posters, documents, digital images) that is legible as well as attractive. Information that is legible and attracts attention is more likely to be seen and applied. No one likes their work to go unnoticed!

“Value is simply the art and design term for light and dark. Value contrast refers to the relationship between areas of dark and light.”

Design Basics, Chapter 12, pg. 244.


To successfully demonstrate an understanding of the element of VALUE and the principle of CONTRAST in the creation of an original composition.


  1. Exploring the work of artists who use value contrast in their work
  2. Apply a number of modalities to identify, capture, and communicate examples of value and figure/ground contrast
  3. Apply an understanding of value in the creation of a composition
  4. Describe Value Contrast using vocabulary of Art & Design.

Materials/Tools Needed

  1. Drawing Paper
  2. Mark-making tools: pencils, charcoal, chalk, conté
  3. Camera Phone

Research and Prep


EXERCISE 1: High and Low Value Contrast (SLO 1, 2, 3)

  • Use your camera phone or a DSLR camera to take images of high and low value contrast scenes.
  • Either set your phone to photograph in black & white or convert the photographs it black & white in photo editing software after you’ve taken. (Play around with your phone filters as you shoot and watch how colors react to the different filters!)
  • Create a 3×2 squares photo grid of your high contrast images.
  • Create a 3×2 squares photo grid of your low contrast images.
  • Upload your photo grids as jpeg files to the assignment in your LMS.
  • Be prepared to discuss your choice of images and decisions for the arrangement of your grid during critique. Use art & design terminology.


Low Contrast

High Contrast

EXERCISE 2: Figure/Ground Relationship

Examine the chart below:

Bartleson–Breneman effect

Notice how, even though the value of the squares on the top row do not change, the eye perceives that the white squares on the left are more brilliant (luminous) than the squares on the opposite side. Let’s recreate this effect in the following exercise:

  1. Select an object from your environment. It can be anything: a sock, a drink can, sunglasses, etc. I chose a box cutter!
  2. Place the object on a piece of black paper and photograph it in a variety of lighting conditions. Observe the changes in contrast between the object and the background.
  3. Now place the object (in the exact same position as before) on a piece of white paper and photograph it in the same variety of lighting conditions. Observe the changes in contrast between the object and the background.
  4. Upload your images to the assignment along with your observations in writing.


Observation: Images 1 and 2 were taken in bright, overcast daylight. Images 3 and 4 were taken in dim, indoor light. Image 1 appears to provide the best detail of the surfaces and textures of the knife. The low contrast between the background and object aided in the camera’s ability to capture the image. In image 2, the object’s shape is dominant over the textures of the object, and the space around the shape becomes its own shape.

EXERCISE 3: Color and Value Relationships

Aerial or Atmospheric Perspective

  • Use your camera phone to capture examples of aerial perspective as the phenomenon is explained in chapter 12, page. 250 & 251.
  • Upload your best image to the assignment in my.talladega.
  • Be prepared to explain your decisions when capturing your image.


Use charcoal on paper to create a black and white (only) composition with both low and high value contrast areas. (One of the easiest ways to do this is to copy one of the images you photographed.) Control the contrast to create a single area of emphasis (what you want the viewer to focus on first!). Use high and low value contrast to create space/depth in your composition as well.

Refer to examples in chapter 12 of Design Basics for examples by other artists. All supplies are included in your packet for this assignment.

  • Finished Size: 17×22
  • Charcoal
  • Drawing paper
Kathe Kollwitz, The Outbreak
Sue Coe. Charlie Parker Watches His Hotel Room Burn, 1984.

Additional Teaching Resources



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