Tag Archives: dark

Shapes of Tone

My students should have this phrase firmly buried in their subconscious mind by now.  Hopefully it re-appears in the conscious mind, front and centre, every time they observe (with squinted eyes) something with the intention of drawing it.  If you learn to see the shapes of tone in everything, you should be able to draw that thing.  If you draw the shapes of tone you won’t draw the subject as your brain wants you to but as your eyes describe.white_bowl

By shapes of tone, I mean the shading and shapes of the shadows (tones) that appear as a result of light and/or lack of light.  This can be tricky when you observe objects with different colours.  Your brain will tell you that a black item is just black and it may demand that you shade it in as dark as you can.  However, if you observe carefully (with squinted eyes) you will notice highlights – light on the lit side and shadow on the non-lit side.  The same thing happens when you see a white object. Your brain might expect you to draw a completely white object but your eyes will tell you otherwise.  Nathan_portrait

When drawing a portrait the whites of the eyes seldom appear white as the brow, eye-lashes and eye lids create a shadow when the light comes from above e.g. the sun and ceiling lights.  When a face is lit from the side the bridge of the nose also causes a shadow.  Sometimes we can’t even see any differentiation between the iris and the white.

During a workshop on portraiture I demonstrated how these shapes of tone are observed and used as a visual guide to drawing the 3 dimensional form of the face.

Thanks to Elise Kooperman for filming and editing this video.


Colour sketching

Adding colour to drawings is often a nerve wracking experience.  Limiting our colour options helps us to be creative without being overwhelmed with all the wonderful colours to choose from.  My favourite coloured tools are watercolour pencils – Faber Castell – Albrecht Durer and Derwent – Inktense pencils are fantastic artist quality and my preference.  You can buy them individually or in different sized sets.

A basic kit of cool and warm primaries (more on that soon)  plus a few extra is  all you need.  I often use only Indigo, ultramarine, a dark crimson, cad red and cad yellow or raw sienna (although I did sneak in a grey green in the sketch below)

I talk a lot when teaching. Traveling down South with my music player on shuffle was wonderful!
I talk a lot when teaching. Traveling down South with my music player on shuffle was wonderful!

All my recommended do’s and don’ts of the Space & Time post apply to working in colour as well.  However there is something else that is crucial to remember when working with colour.

Colour does not replace tonal variation.

Many drawers forget about shapes of tone and replace them with shapes of colour regardless of what the tone is.  Colour provides an additional layer of interest on a work that should stand up tonally as a well balanced composition even without colour.  When you see a boring watercolour painting it is likely so because the artist has not paid attention to the darks and lights.

Ok ok…. I’ll jump down off my favourite soap box…. back to sketching in colour.  Some tips regarding using watercolour pencils.  This is not an exhaustive list so I hope you find your own techniques as well (and share them)

  • Experiment, experiment and experiment some more.
  • Mix colours to see what you come up with.
  • Choose a blue and yellow along with or instead of a green.
  • The marks you make will remain even once you wet them.
  • Draw with your watercolor pencils (not graphite first) and mix and match as your eyes, mood and artistic license suggest.
  • Don’t worry about getting the colour exactly right.  As sketchers we are capturing impressions and playing with colour to  enhance and enrich our work.
  • Draw with the pencils then wet and spread the marks you’ve made with the brush.
  • Take some colour off the tip of the pencil with your wet brush and paint with the pigment or even wet the tip of the pencil and draw with that to get a rich textural line.
  • Using a travel water-brush (as seen above) makes watercolour pencil sketching  easier.
  • Although watercolour pencils will work on drawing cartridge, it is preferable to work on heavier cartridge paper or watercolour paper as some paper will not stand up to too much wetting.

Get Drawing

Shapes of Tone

My students have heard the phrase ‘shapes of tone’ from me since the first day they met me as their drawing teacher.  If you can discern and differentiate shapes of tone in your subject then half your 3D drawing work is done.  Some of you may have come across the word ‘value’  instead of ‘tone’.  They mean the same thing and are interchangeable.

So what am I on about?

  • Shapes of tone are like jigsaw puzzle pieces that fit together to create a picture.  They are the bits of the visual picture you have in front of you in reality, photograph, or in your imagination.  A two dimensional picture would be relatively easy to cut up into a puzzle but it’s not so easy with the three dimensional world.  However, it does help us to use a two dimensional photo to practice on.
  • Shapes of tone are mostly based on light and shadow.  This is where a lot of difficulty and confusion comes in.  I don’t mean the darkness or lightness of the colour of an item but the shadows and highlights that are created by the presence and absence of light and the strength of that light or dark.  You can get highlights on dark or black items and dark shadows on light or white subjects.

Practice these simple exercises to hone your observational skills

Shapes of tone - light and shade.
Shapes of tone – light and shade.
  • Take a coloured photograph and trace the major shapes of tone.  You can do this without ruining your photo by slipping it into a clear document sleeve and then drawing on the plastic with a thin whiteboard marker.
  • When you’ve completed your outlines take the photo out of the sleeve and replace it with a white sheet of paper so that you can see your simple puzzle picture.  Even though the tonal changes are not sharp on the rounded objects you can still draw in a line where you see the sharpest change.  Squinting your eyes will help you to see the shapes more clearly.

    Outlines of the major shapes of tone.
    Outlines of the major shapes of tone.
  • Print a coloured picture out with the black and white setting on your printer or change your photo to black and white in your photo editing software. Even a black and white photocopy of the coloured image will show you the differences in tone.
  • Notice how the cast shadows on the cloth also form simple shapes of tone. (oops I missed them in my tracing)


  • Now try to see some simple shapes of tone around you.  If you look at the world through some red cellophane or acetate (or rose coloured glasses!) this can help you to avoid the confusion of dark and light colours versus tones created by light and shade.  Quilters use this technique to choose materials of contrasting tone.

Get Drawing.

Charcoal still life
Charcoal still life