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Drawings may (very crudely) be grouped into those whose form is modelled through tone (i.e. light and dark) and those whose form is implied through line.

It is recommended that tone be taught separately from line, delivered after students have acquired confidence in line drawing.

Typically, students will attempt to haphazardly incorporate tone into a line drawing, producing drawings that are randomly spotted with dark areas of tone. Teachers are advised to rigorously separate line drawing from tone, and to help students find alternative responses to perceived tone differences. This is likely to include employing variance of line style.

An artist will simplify the infinite number of greys in a scene: breaking them down into approximate bands of light, middle and dark. This is referred to as tone simplification. Correct evaluation of a particular tone value is done through evaluation of their local contrast (i.e. ‘A’ is lighter than ‘B’ but darker than ‘C’) and this relative form of evaluation is one of the main tools of the tonal artist. The tones of a drawing may extend from black to white or from light grey to dark grey. This extent expresses its global contrast, and is what is being referred to when a drawing is described as ‘contrasty’ or ‘lacking in contrast’ (Rembrandt is a good example of a contrasty artist). The highlights and blacks of a drawing should be considered separately, and treated as ‘special guest stars’ in that drawing.

In a drawing, tone is contained within regions. These regions are bound by edges which can be approximately classified as hard, soft or diffuse.

It is through tone that shadow can be expressed. Shadow comes in two forms: cast shadow and form shadow. Connecting an object to the ground there is typically a thin strip of contact shadow.

The following artists are good references in the teaching of tone:

  • The 17th century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. He employed a full range of tones, from black to white, with many beautiful mid tones.
  • The English 20th century artist Gwen John. She sometimes employed a narrow set of tones, with some of her paintings ranging from dark grey to light grey.
  • The French 19th century artist Henri Fantin-Latour. The tonal values of his paintings of flowers were masterfully controlled. His tone pallet was influenced greatly by photography, presenting whites much lighter than Rembrandt would have employed.