Beginner Art · Drawing · Painting · Resources and Materials

What is a Tonal Value?

Tone is crucial in drawing and painting, a tonal value means how dark or light something appears.  We can see tones more clearly when a direct strong light falls on an object or subject.

A Tonal Scale
A Tonal Scale – Light to Dark Tones

When light falls from a primary light source it is easy to see the shadows and highlights it creates.  We see the highlights where the light is shining directly on an object or subject as the lightest tones, sometimes pure white.  We see the areas where the least light is hitting the subject or object as shadows.  Between the shadows and highlights we usually have lots of tones.

Art teachers sometimes talk about getting the most tonal value from a pencil or a piece of charcoal.  This means using all the tones the pencil or charcoal can create, so getting the darkest tones to the lightest tones.  Not having enough tonal range (the lightest to the darkest tones) leads to work that can look a bit flat and lacks depth.

When we first learn drawing work tends to lack tonal range, often being too light and the dark tones are often not dark enough.  Don’t be afraid of the dark tones, they will create more contrast and depth to artwork, making it appear more three dimensional.

Tone is best learnt using just one colour because it is easier.   Once you have established the tones in one colour it becomes easier to establish tonal values when you are drawing or painting using all the colours.

Tonal Study in Acrylics
Tonal Study in Acrylics

Tone is also a bit easier to see when a subject is lit dramatically because this highlights the extremes of light and dark.

If you are struggling to see the tones of a subject there are some things you can do to help:

  • Try squinting so the extremes of dark and light jump out at you
  • Take a photograph of your subject and turn it to greyscale, it is easier to see tones in monotone/greyscale

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