5 Tonal Studies

Pick up any art instruction book or go to any art class and sooner or later — probably sooner — you’re going to come face to face with tonal studies. Even my self-taught class curriculum always includes these value exercises.

Tonal studies are all about depicting three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface. It happens not by magic, not smoke and mirrors, but through the proper use of light and shadow. This week I’ve been working with an exercise by artist Kathleen Staiger. As shown in the illustration above, her tonal value studies include several shapes: a circle, two cubes, and two cylinders.

In completing the exercise, we learn a lot about light and shadow. Here’s a quick glossary of terms we need to understand:

  • Light source: This is the position of the light. By knowing where the light comes from, we can understand how it falls across the form we’re drawing.
  • Cast shadow: A cast shadow is the dark area going directly away from the light source. The shape is determined by the shape of the object and the angle of the light. It always follows the ups and downs of the surface upon which it falls. Note: On rounded objects, there will always be a small amount of cast shadow directly under the object, even on the side that is closest to the light source.
  • General light: This is the light that falls directly on the object. Any area exposed directly to the light source will, obviously, be lighted.
  • Highlight: The closest point to the light source will often show a “highlight” — slightly lighter and brighter than the general light. This is especially true for shiny objects.
  • Reflected light: Light that appears on the shadow side of an object. This light bounces off of other surfaces, such as a table top, and reflects back into the shadowed area.
  • Half-tones: As the surface of an object turns away from the light source, it becomes a half-tone, mid-way between light and shadow. You will see half-tones on rounded or curved surfaces, not on flat planes.
  • Shadow: This, of course, is the opposite of light. Shadowed areas occur on areas that are blocked from the light source. On rounded objects, the transition from light to shadow is gradual, resulting in the half-tones as described above.
  • Core shadow: The core shadow is the darkest area. It is directly opposite the lightest area on a curved surface.

You’ve heard these terms many times before, I’m sure. Yet it never hurts to hear them again, to think about them and to practice using them.

In completing the tonal studies here, you’ll also want to create a dark background (I’m still working on how to do this) and a mid-tone surface.

I’ve done the first two forms — the circle and one cube — and will be finishing the assignment tomorrow. I used a template to draw the circle, then tried to “free-hand” the cube. Even after six years of drawing practice, I still can’t draw a cube. I’m working on it.

These forms were both drawn using only an HB pencil. I’ve done better value studies in the past, so again, it just goes to show that basic exercises like this can always be helpful. Going back to these beginning exercises for drawing reminds me of how important it is to know, to understand, and to practice fundamentals. Each time I do basic “shapes and forms”, I see areas where I’ve improved and areas that still need work.

Just for fun, I grabbed my very first sketchbook. On the second day of drawing practice, here’s how my spheres looked. And look! There’s my very first “value scale”.

Yeah, I think my drawing has improved a little over the years. But no matter how long we’ve been drawing or how proficient we become, I still think tonal studies have a place in our sketchbooks. I hope the value exercises I’m doing today will lead to greater improvement in the future.



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