Major and Minor Key Tonal Values

Once I have a basic tonal value sketch based on a photograph it’s time to use my magical artistic powers to transform or "re-vision" the image into art. As an artist, I have the power to make my paintings sing or create a believable new world enclosed within its four edges. To build your skills beyond being a copyist and become more expressive in your work you have to see beyond the photograph and then build on it.




I always start with my focal point. This is the first place I want the viewer's eye to land. An important rule of composition is that the eye is attracted to the greatest point of value contrast before any other contrast. The human eye is drawn to something light set against something darker or vice versa. By carefully using tone you can create, or strengthen, the focal point in your paintings.


Next, I examine my three-dimensional forms: A careful transition of light and dark tones on a subject gives the illusion of three-dimensional form. It is not the color that makes an apple look like an apple. It is the contour and the form shadow that describe its shape and texture. You could color it blue or yellow, and it will still look like an apple if the tones are right.



Using tone correctly also creates an illusion of depth; the farther away an object is from the viewer the more it takes on the value of the background.

Repetition of particular shapes also adds rhythm and meaning. Rounded forms are more sensual and comforting, angular shapes more threatening, and geometric shapes more conventional. I look for areas where I can adjust my shapes to add emotion at this stage.




Capturing emotion is an art in and of itself, and it’s not automatic. Allowing one value tone to dominate your painting can play a significant role in developing mood and visual impact. Out of the three aspects of color, (hue, value, and saturation) value is the predominant mood maker!

Whether you work in realism or abstraction, planning and revising your work to strengthen the tonal values will produce stronger, more meaningful artwork.



Restricting the range of values is another way you can direct the mood of your artwork. This is called the “Major Key”. A limited tonal range at the light end of the value scale is called “High Major Key” and a limited tonal range at the dark end of the value scale is called “Low Major Key”.

Low-key paintings dominated by darks have a dramatic mood conveying things we sense about darkness, such as mystery, intrigue, fear, danger or sanctuary.

High key paintings dominated by pale colors give the sense of being bathed in light, setting a more ethereal mood. They can suggest optimism, clarity, and life, but there is also the danger of appearing weak, vague, and washed out.

“Minor Key” is manipulating the contrast (difference) between the darkest dark and the lightest light in your value range. The greater the contrast (difference) between the dark and the light tones, the more the visual intensity or dynamic increases. The greater the affinity (closeness in tones) the more the visual intensity or dynamic decreases.

You might want to experiment by transforming your value sketch using several different Major/Minor Key combinations to evaluate their impact on the mood of your piece. If you are skilled with ProCreate or Adobe Photoshop this is a very simple process.

Below is a chart with a variety of Major/Minor Key settings for you to contemplate.



Now that you know that you are probably missing visual information about the world around you, see if you can awaken your perception to notice whether or not an apple is truly red when it looks violet at twilight.

Can you actually see the violet apple, but still know it is red? Does your brain effortlessly subtract the blueish veil from the red apple and “restore” the “true color”.

What happens when you try to see what is actually there, not what you think you see?

It is fun to play this mind game with color and tone, real and not real, seeing and perceiving, truth and invention. Can you see how much easier it will be to apply your color and have fun with color contrast once you have your tonal value sketch ready? I will dig deeper into the application of color in another newsletter.

Training yourself to “see like an artist” opens up a whole world of perception that has been waiting for you to awaken to it. Suddenly you will begin to see things in your daily life in a way you never noticed before.

Jonathan Swift says “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”

For this we have to be a little courageous, we have to experiment and try, we have to make mistakes and trust that our perceptions will expand through experimentation. Once you can open yourself to this way of seeing you can paint pictures that jar regular people out of their well-worn habits of seeing.


If you are interested in understanding more about tonal values and still only have a blurry idea about how artists see, reach out to me and let’s talk. I welcome the conversation and I am available for private classes or workshops. I hope you will use these thoughts to strengthen your perceptions and your paintings. Regardless of your art form, understanding how to play with tonal values can significantly improve your creations. With Light and Delight,

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