Tonal Value: Here's why it's More Important than Color

Tonal value, how dark or light a pigment is, plays a key role in painting.

In representational drawing and painting, tonal value is even more important than colors; good paintings are always good tonal paintings.

Thinks about it; when you paint something, you really trying to mimic the effects of the light as it interacts with the objects in your painting.

The transition between lights and darks on your canvas produces an illusion of three dimensions.

An apple in a painting “looks like” an apple because the tones describe the characteristic form we associate with “apple”.

It is not the color that makes it look like an apple. It is the contour and the form, and tones or values are what make up the form. You could color it blue or yellow, and it would still look like an apple if the tones are right.

From this come the old sayings: “the value can go wrong even if the color is right” and “use whatever color as long as the value is right”. It really is true for representational painting.

So if you aim to improve your painting, make it your goal to master tonal value!

Here are some points to keep in mind as you develop this ability

  • Tone defines the dimensional volume, whether it is full, round, or flat.

  • Value describes the textures of an object.

  • Tone conveys the contrast between the light and dark, and thus sets the mood in a painting.

To illustrate the points, I'll use pastel painting by Edward Degas. Here the painting in full color.

Degas dancers color version

This next image is the same painting, but without color. See how you can still can 'read' the painting? You can make out the form of the figures, their clothing, the textures in the shading, where the light is coming from, and how strong the light contrast is....There is a lot of information here even without the colors.

Degas dancers black/white version

Degas is a great tonal painter; he has a superb ability to control the tonal value in his paintings.

Tonal value creates a visual path

The interplay of dark and light also serves as a visual map to guide your eyes into and out of the painting. It forms a structure.

Below is the version of the same painting. It provides a fresh look, doesn't it?

Degas dancers notan version

The contrast of just 2 light and dark values guides your eyes travel all over the painting.

When you design a drawing or painting, keep this principle in mind - divide up the painting according to the lit areas and the shadows, and you will have a “tonal value pattern” like what you see here. This is one of the most powerful tools to help you compose your painting.

Convert your paintings to black and white

Imagine yourself using a pencil instead of a paintbrush to draw everything (i.e. with gray tones ranging from light to dark using one single “black” color). What this does is to train your eyes to see the value gradation.

Take a book with your favorite paintings. Scan the color images and convert them to gray scale. Comparing the gray with the original will help you see how painters plan their value patterns.

I do not always get the tonal value correct when I work in colors. Therefore, to spot the mistakes, I sometimes scan or photograph my own paintings and then convert them to black and white and view them on my computer. For more information, see my article on ways to decipher color values.

› Tonal Value

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