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Understand Tone and Value to Elevate Your Painting

Master and understand tonal values to make your artwork more realistic ~ Al Kline

Understanding tonal values will elevate your art work. It is also the cornerstone to understanding a subject and creating a realistic appearing watercolor. Tonal values occur in nearly every drawing or painting that is created. Getting the tones correctly is crucial to creating a believable work of art.

Artists use tonal values as a sketch or tonal study before putting the work to paper or canvas. It also serves as a tool in composition.

A tonal study using a single color in different concentrations of water to pigment.

Value is simply how light and how dark particular areas of a subject are and how they relate to one another. Light is the catalyst that puts value on a scale of relation and the principles are the same whether you are creating a figure drawing, painting a still life or even landscapes. Value is constant no matter what medium you use. It is the same for watercolorists, oil painters, sketcher and even abstractionists.

Tone refers to the relative lightness and darkness of a particular color. Tonal value is often referred to as the lightness and darkness of objects and its surroundings in relation to one another.

To understand tone and how it impacts an object, we have to look at the basics of light and how it interacts with an object.

I. Understanding Light and Shadow on an Object

There is the fundamental basis to shading and it is distinguished by lights and shadows. Light falls directly on an object by a light source and shadow consists of everything that is hidden from that source. This also includes reflected areas of light.

To understand light and shadow and how it looks on a surface such as a sphere, we must review a few terms :

Center Light – This is the area that faces directly at the source of light

Highlight – A reflective area of light and in watercolor, is usually the white of the paper or the brightest bright.

Terminator – The area that seperates the lite area from shadow

Form Light – An area of direct light but not necessarily facing the light source.

Reflected Light – This area brightens the form shadow.

Form Shadow – The area in shade as it relates to its form.

Cast Shadow – The terminator form shadow usually cast on the ground or other surface.

Occlusion Shadow – The darkest part of a cast shadow where 2 surfaces meet.

Core Shadow – As the Form Shadow looses light it will form the core shadow.

Penumbra – The softer part of the cast shadow furthest away from the occlusion shadow.

Half Tones/Quarter Tones – Those intermediate tones from light to shadow as the form light turns away from the light source.

Drawing correct light and shadow gives an object the sense of volume. To create a realistic sense of volume, it’s important to understand what affects the intensity of the direct, indirect (reflected) light and different type of shadows plays on an object.

Value is characterized as the actual brightness of an object, independent of light effects. Lighter materials reflect light more strongly than darker materials. Distance also effects light – the further reflected light has to travel, the weaker it gets. 

II. Value Scale

Value scales are different for certain colors. Most darker colors have a full range of tone, but lighter colors, such as yellow, have a restricted range.

Each paint will have a different range of tones and may not provide a full scale of tones depending on the color. For instance, yellow only has a scale of tones ranging to a 3-4/10 on the tonal scale. Darker and cooler colors will provide a greater range of tones. So , a full range of tones may be up to 10 different shades and the least as few as 3 shades. The more realistic a painting, the greater the tonal range.

When approaching a subject, it is best to look at the subject ‘tonally’. In other words, look at the object and say “how light or dark is it in relation to the surrounding objects in my painting” . Then ask “is it warm or cold in color”.

When drawing of composing a work, it’s good to ‘squint’ and see large shapes and contrast without detail. Watercolor lends itself to range of tone that is sometimes unattainable in other media. I’ve often termed “juxtaposition” of light and dark to one another to achieve greater contrast in watercolor.

When discussion tone and values, it’s important to understand how relative value can visually ‘trick’ our eye and brain of how dark or bright an object is to its surroundings. The perception of how bright something is changes depending on what surrounds it.

To prove this , the following value bar has a grey square superimposed over the lightest and darkest value scale. Now ask yourself, which square is lighter and which is darker. The answer is, they are both exactly the same, but look different because of its surrounding value.

The square on the left appears lighter against a dark value and the square on the right appears darker against a light value. In actuality, both squares have the same value. This effect happens when we draw from observation and it can throw off our value judgements. That is why value studies are so important.

In this example, both squares are the same value but appear different because of the surrounding value.

In Robert Wade’s book, Watercolor Workshop Handbook, he makes a poignant statement concerning shapes and tonal values:

. . . there are no outlines in nature. We are able to see things (shapes) because of the surrounding contrasts, and the contrasts are stronger or weaker depending on the quality of light present at the time.

~Robert Wade
Watercolor artist Andy Evansen is a master at using tonal studies and turning simple shapes into believable art work.

III. How to MAP and use TONAL VALUE in Watercolor Painting

In simple terms, tonal sketching and planning can be done with 4 tones. In the simplest terms, the white of the paper is #1 , the second tone is considered a quarter tone (#2), the third tone a half tone (#3) and the final tone a full tone (#4). I left out three-quarter tone for simplicity.

In my technique of painting, three-quarter tones are achieved by lifting and texturing. You can visit my YouTube Channel to see how this is done on some of my high-speed videos. (See video here)

In this example, we sketch using only 4 tones using a cross hatch technique to increase tonal value.

The quarter tone, half and three-quarter tone values would be considered a mid-tone from subtle light to dark. In watercolor, I let paint mix in this range to get a variety of tones that watercolor will often paint itself in the first stage and then use lifting and texturing techniques to achieve subtle differences in my mid-tones, specifically in the darker rage (#3-4) . I often use splattering and glazing techniques to mute certain tones. This is something I have developed through hours and hours of practice and painting. – See the video of the Doberman painting on how this is done here.

This is an example of a simple 4 tone , tonal sketch used as reference for a portrait.

When using a photograph, I often number my tones 1-4 as a ‘map’ or guide to my painting. This is quite useful when planning your painting.

This technique usually gives me a good handle on the lightest of lights (#1), the quarter and half tones (#2), and shadows and darker tones (#3) and the darkest of darks (#4). I let watercolor fill in the rest!

In the above example, I have a photo that I intend to paint and I will print that photo and begin by numbering my tonal value from 1-4 as just described.

When painting, I will put down a base color first of either warm of cool tones that is directly linked to the light source, in this case, coming from the top right. I tend to keep my #1 the white of the paper and #4 as my richest paint directly from the tube, usually a dark mixture of colors.

In watercolor, the consistency of paint and water is directly related to tone. In other words, tone is not depedant on how dark the color is, but rather the consistency of paint. You can read more about how the consistency of paint affects tonal value in my article, “Edges in Watercolor“.

Here are a few screens shots of the class demo of a recent portrait showing the planning and painting of a dog portrait (“Spots”) .

Here is the final painting using tone to create a realistic yet impressionist painting:

Final portrait using a range of tones , textures and watercolor edges.

In this painting, I started with a base wash using my 3 primary colors. (#1) I then mixed them to make a gray and address my midtone values. (#2) Midtones are a combination of quarter and half tones which are dependent on paint consistency and water.

Once I’m happy with the resemblance, I’ll let the paper partially dry and throw in some darks up to #4 and then lift them back out as a #3 to give my darks tonal variance. I’ll let the paper dry again and either lift out or add darker tones to unify the painting. I stay aware of darkening and using richer paint as I go. I may even add a unifying wash or more texture to tie the piece together.

I often use gouaches’ such as white and lavender to mute and unify my painting at different stages (usually when texturing). I often do this by wetting or re-wetting the paper and splattering in gouche or more opaque watercolors.

This painting was submitted and accepted in the National Watercolor Societies (NWS) members 2021 exhibition.

I hope this article helps you in your next watercolor painting! Understanding tone and value is paramount to creating winning art work. Thank you for reading and keep your brushes wet!

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