Tone: Understanding Black, White, and the Grays In Between

One of the foundations for understanding and creating visual art is how light plays on a subject. The play of light, or how light illuminates a subject, is what gives the subject depth and dimension. But how, as artists, do we determine how to reproduce that illumination in the form of ink, paint, pencil, or other creative medium? Enter: a discussion of tone.

Tone, in painting and drawing, means how light or dark a color is, rather than what the actual hue, or color, is. Every color can create a variety of tones, and how light or dark the tones are depends on the color. But to really understand tone, we need to completely remove the color from the equation, and work in black and white to see what we are really dealing with. Enter: the grayscale.

A grayscale, or value scale, if the sequence of tones from light to dark that can be made between white and black—the lightest and the darkest grayscale tones, respectively. There are usually 10 tones on this scale, including pure white and pure black, that define the tones that help us to see dimension, especially in a two-dimensional representation. Artwork that utilizes only the mid-tones—or the middle of the grayscale—are at risk of appearing flat and dull because of the lack of contrast. A successful artwork will almost always have a pure white tone (or a highlight) and a pure black tone (a shadow) to give the work a full tonal range, as well as anchors for our eyes to perceive the tones properly.

But I'm painting in color, you might say. The grayscale, and understanding tones that represent luminance, is vital, even if you don't work solely in black and white. Every color you mix has its own tonal level that corresponds to this scale, because the scale represents luminance, rather than hue. Think of a paint chip: every color on that chip is the same hue, but with a different tonal factor.

To better understand the grayscale and what it can do for our perception of a subject, as well as how we reproduce the tones, try this simple exercise: Paint a grayscale using black and white paint. Start with a block of pure white, and a block of pure black, and work your way towards a full scale of gray tones. Then, repeat the exercise using a paint color the same way: white and fully saturated color as the two anchors, and then work out the tonal steps in between.

Can't See Tone? Squint

Get into the practice of squinting at your subject when you're painting or drawing. This reduces the amount of detail you see and emphasizes the light and dark areas, making it easier to see where you should place highlights and shadows.

Color at Both Ends

Want to go really creative? Use different colors as your white and black tonal anchors. Assignment: Use lime green as be your "white", and an eggplant purple as the "black", and see what kind of tonal scale you can create in between.

Medium Matters

Depending on your medium, you can start painting at either end of the tonal scale. Watercolors can be lightened by adding water, and oils and acrylics can be lightened by adding white. Take this into consideration when starting a new piece.