Seeing colors as black and white values is an essential skill in classical paintings. Yet art manuals and instructors usually only recommend to squint and, at most, to buy a grey scale.


This is in the form of a Q&A, where art meets craft, though I would appreciate any other contributions.

So, how do you easily see grey values in color? Or train yourself to?

This question has an open bounty worth +100 reputation from Stefan ending in 2 days.

The current answers do not contain enough detail.

Looking for information on tried and true solutions not already mentioned in this post.

  • I added a line in your question, to maybe encourage additional answers. If you don't like it, feel free to remove it. – Web Head May 26 '16 at 12:24
  • In classical painting the underpainting does have color as well as tone. Typically the paints in the underpainting are desaturated, but still with warm and cool qualities. Depending on the desired effect the underpainting can be done in fully saturated colors as well. – rebusB Sep 27 '17 at 22:10

Here are some of my solutions

  • Red filter

Anything seen though red is unsaturated; this is the easiest way particularly to see the scene to paint as a whole. Some DIY glasses have red lenses, some photo filters and gels too, cellophane plastic, plexiglass, tinted glass, or red light bulbs to light the scene.

The cheapest and easiest way by far is to buy a sheet of red-colored acetate plastic. You can just hold it to your face or fashion a simple visor with it.

  • Grey scale

Typical photo grey scales go from white to black, with indentures on top. If you need gradations you don’t need extremes, forget highlights and darkest shadows, if you use a typical grey scale you will end up with 2-3 gradations dominant in the painting. Moreover, the gradations are machine made and may not reflect the reality of the values you need.

The best way is to paint a grey-scale yourself with at lest 7 gradations that are needed. You can also paint several of them varying dark tones, light tones, and colors scales.

  • Wheel grey scale.

Typical grey scales are rectangular with indentation on top. That doesn’t really work because you see the values of all of the other colors above it. Visually, the values of colors change when seen next to each others. To get an accurate value of a specific part, that color must be seen independently from the other colors.

The cheapest and easiest way is to use an old camembert wheel box for the disk. You need a hole in the center, only big enough to see through. Divide the wheel into parts 8 or 12 quadrants and paint the scale on it. Also, you can paint the back of the disk mat black so you can see and judge the color from the other side without distractions or white reflections. You can glue the disk to a thin handle to easily vary the distance from you eyes.


I would suggest that thinking purely in terms of grey scale may be placing an artificial restriction on yourself.

It sounds like what you are really interested in is to train your ability to make the connection between shade and three dimensional form with reference to depth and lighting.

I would suggest that the best way to do this is to do a lot of monochrome drawing exercises, particularly of arbitrary shapes (such as randomly draped cloth) where you don't have any prior knowledge to inform you of what the form 'should' be. Similarly doing similar exercises under very directional or monochrome lighting may also help. Here it can help to force yourself to tackle subjects which seem impossible to draw such as piles of rice or pasta, bundles or rags, screwed up paper etc etc.

It may also be useful to do as bit of basic sculpture in a plastic medium such as clay just to help to reinforce the link in your brain between the form that you see and the form that you are reproducing.

Ultimately life painting, drawing or sculpture is about finding a method of translating what you see onto a piece of paper, canvas or whatever and this applies just as much to more abstract and expressive approaches as traditional representational painting and this translation process is what defines your individuality as an artist.


Not really that lame at all. It is something you want to be able to do on your own, and if squinting helps than you are one step closer to that than if you are using some other tool.

Color has hue, saturation, and value (or tone.) What you are doing in your minds eye is ignoring the first two to extract the third. But there is also relative color, and the tone you get from one color will appear very different depending on the colors around it.

The grey scale is a just a tool that has done the first step for you, so you can compare side by side to get your value name, usually in 10% steps of the percentage of darkness where 0% is pure light/white and 100% is pure darkness/black.

But really, the faster you can ween yourself off of using devices to interpret tone values the sooner you can do it purely in your minds eye and the better off you will be. It is the tone you choose to apply along with its neighbors in the artwork that matters, not its name.

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