2.4 Approaches to tone (with video)

Making good use of areas of light and dark give a drawing particular depth which draws the viewer’s eye in. There are two key approaches to tone which we will call the Florentine and Venetian styles. While Florentines like Michelangelo were obsessed by form and linear tone, Venetians like Titian thought in terms of colour, gradation and light. Seurat, a French Post-Impressionist painter, is another master of gradation and light.

by Seurat - notice the tone

by Seurat – notice the tone


by Michelangelo – notice the approach to tone

You can use either approach or it can be effective to use a combination of both. To determine which end of the scale your style will be is simply a matter of experimentation and your personal taste. The methods outlined in this section are a mid-point between the Florentine and Venetian approaches.

Simplifying tone

Take a look at your hand and squeeze and blur your eyes. This will simplify the tones – now you can see the blocks of brightest light and darkest shade. Other parts should be thought of as intermediate levels of tone. You can aim to have four tones in your drawing: black, white, and two greys in the middle. Or black, sanguine and white. Make a simple order in the drawing, from the darkest tone to brightest light.

Using coloured paper allows you to use white effectively. The paper colour gives you a mid-tone, and you can go to the white or black sides around that. It is easier to start with a medium level tone and then move areas to light or to dark. Starting with all light and then putting very dark on that is tricky. You have to be much more masterful with dark lines on pure white.

When you are a bit less experienced, you need to try less advanced tools. Use black, sanguine and white, or black and white on coloured paper to give a few simple levels to work with. With this approach, you can easily highlight certain areas with light and easily create depth. Watteau made beautiful drawings with three colours.

Even in very quick 2 minute drawings, the combination of coloured paper, charcoal and a highlight colour can create all the levels of tone needed to capture a figure

Even in very quick 2 minute drawings, the combination of coloured paper, charcoal and a highlight colour can create all the levels of tone needed to capture a figure – drawing by Mod White

What fruit and veg can teach us about tone and movement

Fruit and veg provides you with an organic form that is readily available for drawing and is much simpler than a human being. This means that you can draw them repeatedly whenever you like, and you don’t need to worry too much about proportions and positioning, anatomy and the various other complications a human body presents.



  1. Create a light outline of the object – the positioning and proportions section will help you with getting things in the right places and sizes.
  2. Now we can start to think about light and movement. Blur your eyes and see the darkest, middle tone and lightest parts of the object. You can then mark these down on the page – light areas with a light pastel and darker areas with charcoal.
  3. Now you can add more contrast within the areas of dark and light you identified. Your lines should follow the movement you see in the object – the contours and ‘flow’ of it.
  4. You can now finalise the tone, keeping in mind the areas of light and dark and the movement you observed previously. Texture can be achieved with repeated cycles of cross-hatching, smudging and removal using an eraser. A putty rubber can be more precise and nuanced than a standard eraser.





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