Key – What It Is, Why It Matters To Your Drawings, And How To Change It (Part One)

In a previous post, I mentioned that it’s possible to realistically change the “key” of part of a drawing to make it work better. Key is the range of values in a drawing and manipulating those values is a little like playing music. If you play the same song in a higher or lower octave, it’s still the same song even though it sounds different. With a drawing, changing the key lightens or darkens its values, but underneath it’s still structurally the same scene.

Here is an example of altered key. The photo on the left is unaltered and I darkened the lower end key of the one on the right. The altered photo has more depth and the bird stands out more too.

Blue Jay with key adjusted upward.

Blue Jay with key adjusted upward. | Blue Jay with key adjusted downward.

Altering the key lets you play with mood, focus, and composition as well as allowing you to draw more sculpturally and differentiate color in gray scale.


Key expresses lighting which gives us cues about the scene in many subtle ways. Light tells us what time of day it is or what time of year, and time and season are evocative.

Alter the key slightly to express a different time sense and the mood changes slightly too.

Change the over all key to inject emotion into a piece by indicating “lightness” or “darkness” of mood.


Shift the focus by making one area lighter or darker than the rest of the drawing.


Modify the “weight” of light and dark values to help balance the composition.

Pushing and Pulling

Extend both extremes of the value scale and you’ll see a more three dimensional effect in the drawing. At the drawing club, we call this “pushing the shadows” and “pulling the highlights.”

Defining Color in Grey Scale

Alter one part of the drawing to differentiate between two colors that are nearly the same value. Red and green are particularly notorious for looking different in color but the same in gray scale. (See this post.)

Cameras See Differently Than We Do

Cameras can’t record all the values our eyes can see, especially at both ends of the scale. They often can’t pick up the detail in the shadow areas and make them too dark, and they usually obliterate details in highlights by making them too bright.

Lighten the key of shadows and darken the key of highlights to correct for your camera’s poor eyesight.

Don’t think about it too much.

Listen to your inner voice as you work. Be sensitive of the need to lighten or darken, shift the focus, or add more detail. That inner sense always knows how to take the next step needed.

In Part Two, I’ll talk about a few ways to alter key.

About Carol

I'm an artist, author, and teaching artist. I've been writing about drawing on this website since 1999 and drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I love teaching others how to draw too.
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One Response to Key – What It Is, Why It Matters To Your Drawings, And How To Change It (Part One)

  1. Lara says:

    Hi, I love ur website and to tell you the truth you have helped me draw again. But their is just one problem I feel stuck I feel like my drawings aren’t good enough. I keep trying and trying and I see no development . Thanks though

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