Tag Archives: shading

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

Get your creative juices flowing

Try this short exercise


  • Take a random set of coloured pencils – your children’s school ones will do. Watercolour pencils can also be used.
  • On a piece of drawing paper (or any paper if you don’t have cartridge) – about A5 is good – colour in small patches in random directions next to and over each other. Make sure that you have two or more patches of the same colour. Don’t worry about whether colours match. It’s best to choose them at random so that you don’t have any preconceived ideas.


  • You need to have at least three layers of colour everywhere. Don’t press too hard because we don’t want to fill in all the tooth of the paper.  (Tooth is the texture of the paper, eg. a little rough, bumpy or smooth. If all the valleys are filled then there is nowhere else for more colour to go.) If you are drawing on cartridge paper you should be able to put quite a few layers on before the tooth is filled. Make sure that you still have some white spaces showing between colours.  This means that you still have place to layer more colour on.
  •  Once your first three layers of colour are down you should have a fairly uniform layer of mid-tone. You are now going to apply the dark and light tones to create your picture.
  • Use a simple piece of fruit either in reality or from you head. You are not going to depict exact colours and it really doesn’t matter what shape you end up with. Just enjoy the colouring. Imagine a light source from the top right of your piece of fruit. This will mean that there is a shadow on the bottom left and a cast shadow on the imaginary table surface. (it’s not necessary to set one up unless you really want pear3to).
  •  Choose a colour that is close to the one you imagine for your fruit. You can use completely unreal colours as takes your fancy. Draw the fruit by layering on colours in the shape of the fruit.  You can draw a soft line if you need to.  Press a bit harder to develop the subject.
  • Add shadows with darker colours so that you develop a darker tone on the shadowed side. Layer in the shape of the cast shadow as well. (This is the shadow on the ‘table’ .) Remember that you cannot darken the tone simply by pressing hard. You need to have a darker colour to begin with. No amount of pressure will change yellow to a dark tone.
  • Try to make sure that your coloured layers make a block of tone. If you have drawn your fruit with a line then make sure that it blends in with the blocks of coloured tone so that you can no longer see it as a line.
  • It is not a good idea to use black or dark brown as this will deaden the work. You can mix darker colours if you don’t have a single one that works. For example use a graphite pencil to add dark or use your black sparingly with another colour layered over it. Mixing complementary colours will give you lovely and unexpected greys. Red and green, orange and blue, yellow and purple – These make fantastic shadow tones.
  • Now that you have your darks you need to put some light back in. Use a plastic white eraser pear5to rub out some of the colour. The purpose is to lighten it, not to get back to the white paper. You still want to see some of the original colour although you may need to press quite hard to remove the colour you want. If you wish the contrast between tones to be greater it is a good idea to lift off some of the colour from the background behind the dark side. You can also add a darker tone behind the light side of you fruit. This will enhance the tonal contrast again. This colour doesn’t need to be as dark as the dark shadows .
  • To finish off, put a table edge in behind the fruit. Colour a final layer over the background, on the table, or both. The purpose is not to obliterate the random colours underneath but just to bring everything together. If you put a layer of colour on the table surface then make sure that it covers the shadow as well. The shadow is not separate from the table.final pear

I’d love to see your finished result and hear how you enjoyed this small project. Please feel free to share.

Get Drawing!