How To Add Value to Your Watercolors

5 Watercolor Habits You Need To Break

Free webinar that will help you eliminate common issues that are holding you back.

Watercolor paintings are often associated with a sense of delicacy and lightness. While this may be true in some cases, it is also possible to create powerful and evocative works with watercolors by using value hierarchy. In this article, we will discuss how to add depth and value to your watercolor paintings, using a step-by-step guide for beginners. We will explore why adding depth is important, and show you how to use value hierarchy to create more interesting and compelling subjects.

Adding value to your watercolors is simple if you understand the hierarchy

Now let’s get into the meat of this topic. And that includes not just value, but value hierarchy. This is something many new watercolorist’s completely ignore. Many YouTuber’s fail to mention this as well in their ‘how to‘ videos. I know beginners tend to only focus on painting finished art. And I get it! I was there and made the same mistake. And my work suffered dearly, not to mention I wasted plenty of time and money. I eventually figured it out the hard way and my work took a turn for the better.

In this article we will cover the following topics;

  • What is value
  • What is value hierarchy
  • Why is value hierarchy important?
  • A step-by-step guide to value hierarchy
  • Finished value sketch and color study comparison
  • How to learn more
  • Conclusion

Add value to your watercolors study
– Add value to your watercolors study

What is value for the watercolorist?

Value is the lightness or darkness of a color. In watercolors, we often talk about washes in terms of their value. A light wash would be a pale blue, while a dark wash might be navy. You can also think about value in terms of how much white or black has been added to a color. A color with a lot of white added is called a tint, while a color with black added is called a shade.

What is value hierarchy?

Value hierarchy is the order in which you place your values from light to dark. In a watercolor painting, the sky is usually the lightest value, followed by the clouds, then the mountains, and so on.

Why is value hierarchy important?

The reason value hierarchy is important is because it helps to create a sense of depth in your painting. By placing your values in order from light to dark, you are effectively creating three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface.

When you are just starting with watercolors, it can be helpful to use a step-by-step guide to value hierarchy. This will help you to understand how the process works and give you a chance to practice before you start painting your subjects.

A good way to start is by finding a subject that has depth. That’s why I chose a random landscape. Still life works well, but it’s only feet, where landscapes deal with miles of depth.

Step-by-step value hierarchy guide demo

Below you can check out the landscape study that was done in the Solve you watercolor troubles course. This is a fantastic class that covers many issues beginners have such as basic drawing skills, perspective, values and more.

Add drawing
– Add drawing

Step #1

Add the drawing using a graphite pencil. I tend to paint loose, therefore I only draw the main shapes and contours. If you prefer more realistic watercolors, then obviously you would add more details.

Light value sky wash
– Light value sky wash

Step #2

Most watercolorists would agree that painting light-to-dark is a good overall plan. That’s what will do in this study. I started by toning the whole area with a very light value. This value represents the sky, which is the lightest value in landscapes unless you are dealing with unusual atmospheres conditions.

Add ground plane value
– Add ground plane value

Step #3

The first wash is allowed to completely dry before painting the next layer which is the ground plane. This area is typically the second lightest value in landscapes. At this stage, we are stacking layers now. Watercolor is a transparent medium, so go a little lighter in value than you think you need.

Add middle ground value
– Add middle ground value

Step #4

Painting wet-in-wet, I added the distant hills. This value should be darker than the ground, so add more pigment to the mixture. Be sure not to go too dark here or you will ruin the hierarchy. The next addition will de the darkest.

Paint darkest values
– Paint darkest values

Step #5

Paint the verticals with the darkest value. So the tree trunks will be very dark while the foliage, or leaves, should be lighter. That’s because some f the leave clusters are translucent, while others are denser. It’s good to add some variety of really dark and lighter values to capture a realistic feel to the trees.

Value and color demo comparison
– Value and color demo comparison

Let’s compare the value hierarchy study to color sketch

As you can see, the value hierarchy study served as a blueprint for color choices in the final study. It helped guide me to make good decisions based on value hierarchy, as opposed to matching colors I may see in nature.

Color matching is never good in my opinion. It’s a losing proposition number one, and secondly, it detracts from what’s most important, and that’s value hierarchy.

How to learn more

Here are two fantastic courses for mastering values and creating quality watercolor artwork.


I hope this brief article helped understand how to add depth and value to your watercolor paintings. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below!

Affiliate Disclosure: Watercolor Fanatic recommends products we would use and all opinions expressed here are our own. This post may contain affiliate links that are at no additional cost to you, we may earn a small commission. Read full privacy policy here.

Leave a Comment