Tonal Bars

A few days ago I picked up Keys to Drawing — my current favorite “how to draw” book — and turned to a drawing exercise. It involved making what Bert Dodson, the author, calls a “tonal bar”. If that sounds suspiciously like a “value scale”… well, you’re right. It is, but, then again, it isn’t.

First, here’s an example of a “value scale”, a great exercise for learning about graphite shading.

It’s actually fairly simple to do a value scale like this.  You section your paper off into five equal areas, leave the first one white, and then gradually shade each additional area slightly darker than the one before. You do this by applying various amounts of pressure.

A good tip here — one that has been very helpful for me — is to shade the entire area. In other words, don’t leave “white space” between the marks you make.

You don’t actually have to have your page neatly divided into boxes. In the video clip below “Mrs. Red” shows exactly how to create a tonal scale through pencil pressure:

So far, so good, and shouldn’t we all practice value/tonal scales/bars like this once in a while, at least? Definitely.

But Bert Dodson’s version of a “tonal bar” was slightly different from those I’ve made before. The illustration below is taken directly from the book, and you can see that although Dodson mentions “pressure”, his tonal exercises are done with a “hatching” style of mark rather than our more familiar — and more comfortable — method of “back-and-forth” pencil strokes.

I groaned when I saw these “tonal bars”. I groaned even more when I read what Dodson had to say about the exercise:

“This exercise is valuable in controlling tone and is harder than it looks.” Yikes! Not exactly encouraging words. Truthfully, I wanted to close the book and forget about drawing for the day. I really wasn’t at all sure how to do a “tonal bar” with hatched strokes.

But, I did it anyway. If I’m serious about improving my drawing, I need to do exercises like this. In fact, the more resistant I am, the more likely it is that the exercise in question is one I really need. So, I grabbed my sketchbook and simply resolved (a) to actually try making a tonal bar as suggested, and (b) to do the best I could with the exercise.

For a moment, I was able to put myself back in my “beginner’s shoes” with very much the same attitude I had when I first said “I’m going to learn to draw.” I assured myself that this would be fun, that I would do my best, and that whatever results I got would be all right. The exercise, I reminded myself, was designed to help me improve my skills. I probably wouldn’t do it perfectly the first time, and that was all right.

It’s difficult to see my pencil marks in the scan I made, but yes, I completed my tonal bar exercise, and while it’s not great, it’s not bad either.

You can’t see the marks as I moved toward the right, but, trust me, there are marks there. I’m showing this simply to prove that yes, indeed, I followed through on this lesson. I completed my “tonal bar” assignment.

It would have been so easy to shrug this off, to say, “Oh, I’ve done value scales before. I don’t really feel like doing this. This probably isn’t going to really help me.” Instead, I did what was asked of me. I then had the satisfaction of saying, “I did this. I took one more step toward becoming a better artist.”

This simple exercise was valuable. Not only did it help me improve my drawing skills, it also helped me re-affirm my interest in and commitment to learning. Yes, I want to keep learning and growing. Yes, I want to improve my drawing abilities. Yes, I can… and most of all, yes, I will.

The moral of this story is this: Never underestimate the value of any exercise, even if it seems insignificant or meaningless. There’s more to learning to draw than just learning to draw, if you see what I mean. And, the very next day, as I was working on an art project, I found myself using the exact “hatching” skills I’d learned and practiced while making my tonal bar. How about that!

For most graphite artists, all of this is “basic information”, of course. Even so, it’s a good exercise to do. I encourage you to try it today! Who knows, you might use those skills tomorrow.


  1. This exercise would be perfect for helping improve skills at shadowing and shading, which you have expressed an interest in growing – aiming to develop gradual, consistent transitions from light to dark and to create more realistic shadows.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL… yep, it does. Oddly, I actually enjoy “hatching” exercises in ink more than with graphite. I just get so very messy when I’m trying to do graphite shading. Even when I try to cover my drawing with a sheet of paper, I still end up with graphite all over my fingers, and smudges everywhere! I’m working on it, though. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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