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How to use Photoshop to Study Values before Drawing and Painting

Photoshop is an excellent tool for manipulating your images to see them better. There is a saying in art, “Color gets all the credit, but value does all the work.” I tend to agree with this. If your value changes in your composition are not balanced and pleasing, the artwork generally fails. We've been addressing this issue of "values" in the beginning portrait classes I teach, so I thought I'd use this blog to share some tools and tips.

How do you eliminate the distraction of color so that you can see the underlying values? How can you use Photoshop to adjust the values in your image to obtain more interest?

If you can do these things, chances are you'll create a better painting or drawing.

I will give you step-by-step instructions below for my steps, but first an overview. In a nutshell, I use my iPhone to snap pictures or find free ones on the internet. I prepare them, then bring them into my Photoshop Essentials on my desktop computer. I translate them from color to black-and-white. Then I manipulate the B&W image to improve the values. I save different versions of my manipulated image to think about. In the end, I choose the one which feels strongest and go from there to drawing down my image and painting.

Here are the specific steps for how I do it with an example:

1: Find your image.

I get an image by taking a picture or googling what you want. In this example I am using a picture of Frida Kahlo from the internet.

2: Crop out the junk.

If using your own photo, resist the urge to photo edit in your camera. While these functions are good for many things, Photoshop will need to interpret and accept the file from your phone. Make it easy for Photoshop to use a raw image. The only editing in my phone that I do is aligning and cropping, if needed.

3: Send to your computer.

Send your file to your desktop or wherever you use Photoshop (iPad, etc.) and give it a name. Choose something descriptive and simple.

4: Open this file in Photoshop.

I am using Photoshop Elements 2021, but Adobe has done a good job of keeping commands similar across various versions of the software. So, if you are using an older version, these steps should still apply.

5: Click on “Enhance.”

Photoshop will give you options for editing using Quick, Guided, and Expert. Ignore those choices and look at the menu bar along the top of the screen and click on “Enhance.”

6: Choose “Adjust Color.”

Your first edit to your image is to eliminate color, so this command will help do that. Click on Adjust Color.

7: Choose “Remove Color.”

In the side menu that pops up, choose “Remove Color.” Once you click “Remove Color,” you will have translated your color image into a black-and-white image.

8: Save your image.

Before you make changes to this image, Save it with the original name and add “BW” to the end of the name. Your computer should save this B&W image next to the color image in your file manager.

9: Review your image.

Before you make changes to your image, analyze it for its current value structure. Is the image gray overall or is there a good amount of contrast? The next step in my process is usually to boost the contrast and to strengthen the dark and light values to have more of a feeling of segments of value versus smooth blends of similar grays. My process works for me, but your preferences may be different, so obviously make adjustments that suit your style.

10. Under “Enhance,” choose “Adjust Lighting”

This control allows you to lighten or darken your image by degrees.

11. Choose “Brighness/Contrast”

Click on it and look at the two measuring scales which is are set at the middle (or a zero value.) Starting with the “Contrast” scale, move the indicator to the right to increase the measure to a higher number which also increases the contrast. You can see your image change as you move the indicator. Move it enough to improve the contrast for your image. As you move farther to the right, you will lose detail as it gets lost in the darker darks and the lighter grays and whites. I try to achieve a limited value scale which include Black, white, and two mediums (i.e., a light gray and a darker gray.) Save your change. I usually take the original file name + BW + edit1.

12: Choose the “Lighting” scale next (it is next to the “Contrast” scale)

As with the “Contrast” scale, move the indicator to the right and left and evaluate what is happening to your image as you change the lighting value. Stop and save the change when you find a presentation that makes sense to you. This file name can be the same as the last.


Finally, I take this image and digitally manipulate it further to add color back in or to get a rough working drawing. I don’t necessarily draw from it, but I like to see the shapes the computer generates.

13: Getting a rough drawing. Click on “Filter.”

Once you have an image that is B&W and has adjusted values, you can manipulate it further to give you outlines of various kinds. I like to open up the image and, from the main menu bar at the top of Photoshop (to the right of Enhance) you will find “Filter.”

14: Filter/Stylize/ Trace Contour.

In the right-side menu, choose “Trace Contour” and click on it. With this option, you will also get a scale to manipulate how many contour lines you get. You can get less or more. Play with the scale and watch your image change from a bar bones line drawing to a drawing with more detail. Choose the one that serves your purposes and save it under original file name +BW+edit1+Contours.

15: Choose Filter/Stylize/Ink Outlines for darker contours.

Photoshop is wonderful for helping you to see other possibilities inside of any given image. If you are at all inclined to experiment and play,

In sum, Photoshop is a great place to start before you get out your charcoals, pastels, and/or paints. I don’t believe the computer and software will ever replace the human part of art creation that attempts to put soul into an artwork, but technology does give tools to make us better at what we do.

Here are is one last pictures in which I added color back in as a last step to achieve a monochomatic study. My advice is play with the filters in Photoshop. It's like taking a trip to a foreign country and trying out new food. Tasty for the artistic brain!

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