What is Tone?

Tone refers to how light or dark something is, and is created by the way light falls upon an object. Tone can also refer to how light or dark a colour might appear in real life. 

Tone can be used for a range of effects so it can be used like it’s being used here in MC Escher’s work to create the illusion of form. It can also be used to create a particular atmosphere or to suggest depth and distance such as in a landscape painting. 

The parts of an object in which receive the most light are called highlights, and the parts of the object where the light is the weakest or the darkest are called shadows. The areas in between are the mid-tones or the middle tones. 

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Three Spheres II (1946) M. C. Escher


Contrast refers to the difference between tones, so in this painting by Claude Monet the lightest and darkest tones are quite similar so it can be described as a low contrast image. This tends to create images which are more subtle and calming. Whereas if we compare this to one of Monet’s other works in his haystack series, we can see this image has a greater or a higher contrast because the light and dark are much more different. This creates a much more dramatic image.

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Haystack, Morning Snow Effect (1891) Claude Monet
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Haystacks Effect of Snow and Sun (1891) Claude Monet

Tonal Scales

Tonal scales are a good way to practice using tone within artwork, particularly if you’re working with a pencil or with paint. To create a tonal scale, we will have white at one end, that’ll be our lightest tone, and we gradually make darker greys until we reach black at the other end. 

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Smooth Blending

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Don’t be tempted to blend pencil with your finger because it will smudge your work, make it lighter and leaves a greasy layer on your paper.

Smooth blending is the type you see in realistic pencil drawings. To blend smoothly we should move the tip of our pencil in little swirling motions, rather than back and forth in lines. This helps the pencil to blend into itself. For our lightest tones we make this motion without pressing down on the paper. Instead, the weight of the pencil is enough to put down tone.

You can make darker tones by building up multiple layers of pencil and by increasing the pressure on your pencil slightly.


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When we create tone by scribbling, we apply a normal amount of pressure and instead make lighter tones by including less scribbles. The more gaps between our scribbles the lighter it appears and the fewer gaps between our scribbles the darker it appears.

It’s not often you get told to scribble, but today you can and should.

Scribbling is used a lot in quick expressive drawings and it particularly helpful for applying tone to textured objects. For example, if I was drawing a tree quickly, scribbling would allow me to capture the tone AND texture.


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Hatching uses parallel lines to create tone. Like scribbling, hatching relies on the amount of white space available between your lines. For lighter tones we leave quite a bit of space between lines and as we get darker, we bring the lines closer and closer together.

Hatching can easily be done using other materials such as pens and because of this you often see both hatching and cross hatching used in illustrations and comic books.

Cross Hatching

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Its ok if your lines are different lengths.

Cross Hatching again relies on parallel lines but as the name suggests cross-hatched lines cross over each other. Like hatching, cross hatching relies on the amount of white space available between your lines.

For lighter tones draw one set of parallel lines, leaving a good amount of space between them. For darker tones draw extra sets of parallel lines over the top, each set going in a different direction. As you get darker you will cover more of the white space.