What Colors to Use? Part 1: Values

When it comes to coloring mandalas, most people want to know how to determine what colors to use more than anything else. It’s a challenging topic to address so I plan to offer a series of articles on this topic.


When it comes to coloring (or painting or anything involving colors) we first need to understand “values.” In the context of art, value refers to the lights and darks. Without a good balance of lights and darks and variations in between the piece becomes flat and boring, with each section looking the same as all the other sections.

If we were to look more closely at the colorings we’ve done that we thought looked bad or off, I bet what we would find out is that rather than the colors being off it would really be that our values were off; that we lacked any real contrasts between light, medium and  dark colors.

For example, I filled in each section of the Aztec Mandala with the same color: light grey. While the design may be interesting, the use of the exact same value of grey makes the piece a bit boring.

Aztec Mandala - light grey
1. Aztec Mandala – light grey

In example 2, I filled in all the sections with dark grey. Now along with being boring it’s also difficult to make out the design.

Aztec Mandala - dark grey
2. Aztec Mandala – dark grey



Look what happens in example 3 when I alternated the values between light and dark grey…now it becomes a more interesting piece and we can clearly differentiate the sections.

Aztec Mandala - light & dark grey
3. Aztec Mandala – light & dark grey

So let’s pick one color, in this case blue, and use various values of blue (light, medium and dark). This type of coloring is called monochromatic where we use varying values of one color throughout the piece. Now it becomes even more interesting and all we used were different values of blue.

Aztec Mandala - various values of blue
4. Aztec Mandala – various values of blue

In example #5, I chose 6 different values of green (from light to medium dark) for the center area, repeating the 6 twice. Here again we’re still using the same color: green and yet by just changing the different values of green, we achieve a very interesting mandala.

Aztec Mandala - varying values of green
5. Aztec Mandala – varying values of green

Just to prove that values play a greater role than the actual colors we use, I created this version of the “Essence of Being” mandala using 47 different colors. I gave myself two criteria…mix up the colors and mix up the values. If you look closely in some areas, the colors that I put together are rather odd and yet because I mixed up the lights and darks, the colors appear to work.

Values: Essence of Being
6. Values: Essence of Being


Assignment 1:

  1. Decide on one color. For your first version, you may want to play with the varying values of black (white to grey to black).
  2. Go through your box of crayons or pencils or whatever medium you use and pick out the full range of light to darks form that color.
  3. Now play with alternating the lights and darks…play with coloring in a range of lights, mediums and darks.
  4. This exercise is mostly about seeing and using different values and how they can make your colorings more interesting than the actual colors your using.

Assignment 2:

  1. If you have a graphics or photo app where you can turn an image into greyscale or remove color, pick out an image or photo you find beautiful.
  2. Open this image into your graphics or photo app. (For instance I use photoshop elements).
  3. Remove the color from your image/photo or turn it into greyscale. (In photoshop elements, I would go to Enhance->Convert to Black and White)
  4. Now notice the different values in the image…notice the light areas vs. the mid-tones vs. the dark areas.

For example, here’s a black and white image of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Notice where the lightest values are? Front and center: her face, upper chest, with her hands being the next closest area of lights. Notice the sharp contrast between her hair and her skin, it really makes her face stand out. Notice how the background is mostly mid-tone values and softer…while the background is interesting it literally pales in comparison to the woman in the painting.

Values Mona Lisa: black & white
7. Values Mona Lisa: black & white

So if you want an area to really pop in your painting/coloring, regardless of the colors you’re using, use your lightest lights up against your darkest darks. If you want a section to be less noticeable, tone down your values to the mid-range level.

Happy Coloring!

joyfully, Maureen
The Mandala Lady


  1. Hi Maureen, What a great article! You have explained artistic values in such an easy to understand way. I love it! Hope to see more. Such a helpful article.

    1. Thank you, Janhavi. I’m glad you found it helpful. Yes, there will be more to come 🙂

  2. You know, maybe it is just because my mandala work is exclusively for me, but when I’m doing it, I tend not to wonder whether I have chosen the “right” color … I read your inciteful articles and enter a moment of meditative contemplation about the writen word and then follow my instincts, making decisions as I go along based on “feel” rather than theory. Then again, I’ve always had this fascination with what colors “feel” like … what color represents concepts like “strong” or “sad”. You can imagine that this last section on sex (MOTY, I think) was a really interesting experience!

    1. Lori, I agree with you regarding colors. Most of the time when coloring a section I just look over at my pencils or markers and whatever color jumps out at me I grab and start coloring with it…and continue on to the subsequent sections in the same way. Mainly what I want to get across in the “choosing colors” articles (more to come) is how understanding values, shading, temperature, etc. will make is so that it really doesn’t matter what colors you use and to color from a more intuitive space rather than from the mind/intellect.

      Happy Coloring! – Maureen

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