The Use of Values in a Fabric Portrait

I have had a number of quilters say that their biggest challenge in creating a fabric portrait is figuring out how to use values effectively in a fabric portrait, both to get a 3D look and to avoid the patchy look.

If this is you, here is a guide to help you out.

The most important thing is a good understanding of what values are and how they are used both in art and in quilts.

This is where a gray scale comes in handy! It is used to select the values of the fabrics you will use for your portrait.

Used to determine value.

gray scale

Gray scales come in a variety of shapes and some start with the lightest value as a very pale gray. My preference is for the gray scales that start with white, as I sometimes want that really light value in my portrait. You can find gray scales in art supply stores or in my store.

A gray scale and how to use it to determine value

You lay the gray scale over each of your fabrics and try to match the values on the scale to the values of your fabrics. Sometimes it helps to cover most of the scale so you can concentrate on just one value at a time. 

How many values?

I generally use 5 values in the skin values in a portrait, although occasionally I will use 4 or 6. It really depends on the results of posterizing the photo. 

As you will be posterizing your photo to bring out the values, it is a good idea to convert the photo to black and white first, so that the variable of colour is eliminated.

Photo of a woman in a vintage dress. Fits with the xt about head and shoulders photos.


The key element to creating a portrait that doesn’t look patchy is to have a subtle gradation of values. This gradual shift in value from one piece of fabric to the next allows the eye to perceive the face as a whole rather than as separate shapes.

You don’t want one piece to stand out on its own. While that is wonderful in a traditional quilt, it doesn’t work well in a face.

 The  use of values in selecting fabrics for a fabric portrait

As discussed, you want a subtle shift in value. Thus you want to look for fabrics that have values that are next to each other on the value scale. It helps to first pick the lightest or darkest value for your fabrics and then work from there in trying to gather together the fabrics that will create a gradation of values.

An important thing to remember is that colour is deceiving when trying to determine value. It distracts and thus makes it harder to see the value. 

One way to see the values of your fabrics more easily is to take a picture of them and convert it to black and white as seen below.

photo showing the use of values in selecting fabrics for a fabric portrait.

And don’t feel that you have to use skin tone fabric! You can use any colour, or colours, to create a portrait. Perhaps choose that person’s favourite colour as the basis for your portrait of them.

It is critical to use a subtle shift in value between your fabrics. This creates a smooth looking face and is the key to avoiding the dreaded patchy look.

A tool that is very handy for determining value is a gray scale. Learn to use one well and you will find that you can choose your fabrics much more easily. 

If you would like to hear my complete talk on this subject, you can hear it on my  Facebook page.


If you would like to learn more about using value effectively in a fabric portrait join my 5 Day Values Challenge which starts September 13. You can learn what values are, how to determine them and use them well, posterizing, and how to choose fabrics that will work well in a portrait.

Registration opens in early September. Sign up for my Studio updates to get the early notification!

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