Apr 24 2014

Fundamentals of Tonal Drawing

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charcoal-apple-grade 8Whether your intention is to draw realistic or abstract subjects, an understanding of tonal value (variations of light and shade) is of immense importance.  Having a wide range of values in itself can turn a mediocre drawing into a more dynamic one.  Mastering the perception of light and shade can seem almost like a “magic trick” to those who are not trained in drawing, but understanding the properties of value perception is not extremely difficult, and a little practice goes a long way. 

The first step is to understand the varieties of value that can be achieved through your drawing tools. Though it is not necessary to own every density of graphite or charcoal pencil, the beginning student should have at least 5 or 6 of the following:

pencil-densityBoth graphite and charcoal pencils are designated by the softness or hardness of their leads, ranging from very hard (9H to 4H) to very soft (4B to 9B), plus a variety of mid-tones between. I would suggest the following as a basic set for the beginning student: 4H, 2H, 2B (same as the common #2 pencil), 4B and 6B. You can always expand out from these. You should also get some compressed charcoal (which gives the richest dark blacks), vine charcoal (softer and more easily erased), and white charcoal (for drawing on toned paper, to be explained further). A white rubber eraser, kneaded eraser and a paper stump (for blending) are also part of an essential drawing kit.  A variety of smooth and textured papers is nice, but you can begin with a newsprint pad and Bristol paper (or even bond or computer paper while you are learning basic skills). You’ll eventually want to invest in archival quality papers, in differing weights and textures.



Creating a value drawing of a simple sphere is a good exercise for the beginning artist, as it is a very direct way to learn how light shifts as it falls upon and bounces off of a form.  You’ll have a more successful time of this if you can properly control your light source (the standard classroom, for example, has multiple overhead lights, which is problematic for this exercise).  You should ideally have ONE primary light source.  Ambient light in addition to a spotlight will be a good set-up for this purpose.  Before you begin the sphere exercise, you should create a scale of 10 values.  Attempt to make each segment an equal jump in value. It will be helpful (though not essential) to use a commercial value scale or value finder to compare your handmade one to, matching each shade as closely as possible.  After creating your value scale, create a tonal drawing of your sphere attempting to use all 10 values.  Pay close attention to observing and recording the highlight, mid-tone, core shadow, reflected light, and cast shadow.

For more  information about the fundamentals of light and shade, visit the following resource: A Theory of Light and Shade

Observational Tonal Study: Single Object


In real life, there are few perfectly geometric shapes or spotlighted situations in which to study light.  I personally prefer to draw natural objects which provide a variety of interesting forms and textures to study.  As you refine your drawing skills, you will find yourself attracted to various objects that you see through the course of your daily life.  A leaf, a tree, a flower, a cabbage … there are so many natural forms that create interesting tonal studies. 



To prevent yourself from becoming discouraged, it’s best to begin with the simpler forms and advance to more difficult ones.  But don’t be afraid to attempt to draw something that might be beyond your current technical ability.  If you have sufficient interest, you will overcome the challenges of a complex subject. magnolia-poppy One of the most successful ways to simplify a complex subject is to zoom in on a smaller detail and crop to it. To do this, it is helpful to have a small mat-board frame to help you visualize a smaller cropping (an empty slide frame is very effective for this purpose too). You will find it is less overwhelming to zoom in than trying to tackle the whole subject, and it often also makes for more interesting compositions. SusannahBlaxill-details

All of the sample croppings above were created from full drawings made by botanical artist, Susannah Blaxill. The full drawings are gorgeous in their own right, but I thought it was interesting to see each of the images cropped down to essential elements. Any one of these samples could be developed into a full drawing. One good exercise is to create thumbnail sketches of various zoomed-in portions of a subject before dedicating oneself to a more time-labored tonal drawing of your selected study. Another idea is to do a more simplified drawing of the whole subject, with fewer details… and then to make more studies of the same subject which crop in.

HiromiMiura-3-ink-flowersHiromi Miura’s ink drawings are fascinating in the amount of detail that he obtains in his cropped ink studies of flowers. He balances his skillful rendition of these flowers by offsetting the obsessively focused areas with more open and delicate passages. These examples are far beyond the ability of beginning students, but they are a wonderful example as a teaching tool for the design elements of an effective drawing. You will often find when you work on a drawing that the process of drawing in itself focuses your mind in such a contemplative way that you see the object differently after completing a drawing of it. 

Maple-Leaf-fresh-crumpledDrawing can teach you how to “see”, as well as educate you on what your strongest visual interests are. If fascinated by a subject, it might be helpful to do a series of drawings where you explore the subject from different angles or lighting situations. You might explore the same subject in graphite, charcoal, ink for varied effects.

Using toned paper is one of the easiest ways to simplify the work of establishing a variety of values in a tonal drawing. You can purchase papers that are colored in a neutral mid-value gray or brown… or even work on a paper bag (it’s not archival and won’t last as long, but it’s good for practice). By starting with a mid-tone background, it is much easier to work your darks and lights simultaneously, instead of having to work up your values from a stark white piece of paper. For highlight values you will need a piece of white chalk.


You can also tone your white paper with soft fine charcoal by going over the whole sheet with the side of the charcoal.  You then blend the charcoal down into the paper with a soft chamois (suede cloth, traditionally), or a soft rag.  Then lift your whites out with a kneaded eraser to go back to the white of the page, while working the darks with vine or compressed charcoal.

Drawing on black paper is yet another option, as in the last sample (above).  For this method, you work almost entirely with white chalk, creating the gray tonal values by blending the chalk into the black paper, using a paper stump to create blended grays.


 All kinds of bones make magnificent still life objects… as do shells!  Their subtle variations of white and grey tones, in addition to the undulating sculptural surface makes them perfect drawing subjects.  Need more convincing?  Study the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe.  You will be rewarded for your efforts in building up a collection of bones and shells for the purpose of drawing (and painting) study.


Man-made (inorganic) objects are also terrific subjects for observational drawings.  Musical instruments are quite sculptural in form, and therefore an excellent subject for study. Again, a good composition might crop the instrument in order to focus more effectively on specific details.


 There are a variety of subjects that you have laying around the house that can be seen in a new light. Examples include tools, kitchen utensils, keys, glasses, cups, etc. Art instructor, Amiria Robinson, suggests creating an assortment of utensils (and gluing them down to a board if needed for more than one sitting). Pay attention to the reflections, shadows, and intersecting lines created from the assortment.

I’ve intentionally left out the subject of “still life drawing” (or the observational study of multiple objects) for now, as I feel that it is best to progress from the study of value of a single subject before attempting the complex relationship between objects. In addition, the subjects of animals, people (faces and figures), and landscapes each have their own additional set of design and proportional considerations that will be considered separately. Though it is not absolutely necessary to follow these lessons in sequence if you are working outside of class and have a desire to jump ahead, it is suggested that you at least have a firm understanding of the use of line before attempting value studies.


More drawing lessons coming soon:

Still Life Tonal Drawing (in progress)
Drawing and Shading the Face
Drawing Trees, Landscape and Atmosphere
Abstraction and Surrealism in Drawing
Effective Use of Drawing from Photographs
Drawing from the Masters
Exploring Line: Contour and Blind Contour
Gestural Line: the Quick Figure Study

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