Tonal Drawing Technique in Life Drawing

Tonal Drawing

When we look around our environment, to the objects that make up the space we are in, we see the world by perceiving colour and tone. Tone, also commonly referred to as value, determines how light or dark we recognise something to be. Understanding the properties of value perception, although not extremely difficult, is immensely important for all drawings, whether you aim to create a realistic or abstract depiction of your subject. This is because a wide range of tones will turn a mediocre drawing in to a vibrant one.


It is for this reason figure drawing presents the artist with a complex arrangement of tones that need to be selectively interpreted into drawn marks. However it takes practice and lots of it in order to judge accurately how light or dark a relative value/tone is. One way to develop our understanding of tone is to begin by categorising the values we see; looking for the lightest of lights, the mid tones, and the darkest of darks. The beginner artist may wish to practice observing value on a still life object, this will allow the artist to observe how light shifts, casting shadows and bounces off of a form. However you may find you will have more success with this exercise if you have one primary light source; allowing you to properly control the value.

When it comes to life drawing tone is extremely important, the easiest way to simplify this task is to use toned paper rather than working from white paper. With the mid-tone already present it is easier for the artist to then establish a variety of values to make up a dynamic drawing. Black paper and white chalk also offers another option, the darkest tones are already present with the black paper and the white chalk can be blended with the paper to create midtone greys.

However to fully gain an understanding of tonal perception it is beneficial for any artist to undertake the exercise ‘Tonal Drawing’, as it is not about creating a realistic drawing but trains the the eye to expertly observe value. The exercise ‘Tonal Drawing’ involves creating a figure drawing based on the principles of applying a mid-tone to the paper first, erasing away parts to represent light, and adding darker tones to serve as shadows.


Step one, start by rubbing the side of your charcoal over the entire sheet of paper to create the mid-tone.

Step two, find the basic form of your subject by using a rubber to erase parts of the charcoal to reveal the basic figure.

Step three, use charcoal to create shadow and a rubber to erase where you observe there to be light.