Tag Archives: light

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.

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