What is tone?

Tone is the relative scale of light to dark values in an image. It is vital to creating depth and solidity in a drawing or painting.

When you are choosing a reference picture, it’s best to choose one with lighting that shows the contrast between light and shade, particularly when drawing or painting a portrait. Very often, photos flatten images and when painting or drawing a portrait this makes it much more difficult to see facial contours and get a likeness.

If you’re taking your own reference picture, try to post the sitter in natural light, sideways onto a light source or window.

You can use tone to do preparatory sketches for paintings, or as underpaintings for finished pieces.

Tones and light sources

Tone describes the lightness or darkness of an object. It’s easiest to learn to use by working in monochrome, but colours also have tonal properties and can be light or dark.

When painting or drawing realistically, the tone of your drawing will depend on the position of the light source.

Practice drawing or painting simple solids and their shadows, noticing where the light is coming from.


It’s useful to train yourself to spot the shapes of the different tonal areas. In the picture below, I’ve outlined the highlight area and the area of darkest shadow.

Using tone

How you apply shade depends on the medium you use.

Make a tone chart of the medium you are using so you can familiarise yourself with the different paint mix and paint opacity or pencil type and pencil pressure you need to use.

For pencil

Fill a grid with pencils of differing H (hard) and B (black) values, pressing hard to start with then lessening the pressure in successive squares. You’ll see the range of tones you can achieve with your pencils.
Notice that the softer (blacker) the pencil, the more textured it appears. You can use this to your benefit when representing textures in drawing. If you want to make a dark tone smoother, you can blend it with a blender, tortillon stump, cotton bud, tissue, or cotton wool; or shade over it with a harder pencil.

For paint

Make a line of squares and starting with black, mix the paint with incrementally more white paint and fill the line.


Subtractive drawing and painting

Drawing from dark to light

The fundamental three tones to get down when starting a painting or drawing with tone are the lightest, the darkest, and the mid-tone (the tone in between darkest and lightest).

Once you have these in place, it’s easier to refine the tones.

If you draw onto a mid-toned surface, you can achieve this most easily by erasing the highlights, then adding the darkest tones.

Example: Drawing dark to light example using pencil

  1. Cover the paper with pencil, trying to keep coverage as even as possible then blend with a tissue. Mark out the facial features.
  2. Use an eraser to start to rub out the lightest parts of the face. Pay attention to the shapes of the light tonal areas.

  3. Add the darker tonal areas, still paying attention to the shapes they form. Add detail to the facial features.

  4. Check your proportions and continue to refine shapes and tones until you are happy

Painting from dark to light

If you paint onto a mid-toned surface, you can use a tonal underpainting to achieve an accurate base over which you can add your colour.
Painting with oil or acrylic, start with a mid-tone base in a greyish colour. Build up in the same way, firstly mapping out your painting, then adding the lightest tones. Take great care to notice the shape of the light tones and their position in relation to other elements of your reference.


Repeat with the darkest areas, then refine tone until you are happy.

You can now add colour glazes over the top.


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