Tonal Value Drawing Techniques: How to Create a Value Study

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tonal value drawing, Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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Tonal values serve as a cornerstone in both painting and drawing, playing a pivotal role in creating a realistic sense of light and depth. By focusing on clarity in the values of your tonal value (drawings and paintings), you have the power to create a visual impact that captivates viewers.

In this article, you will find several examples on how you can conduct your own value studies. Along with techniques for simplifying values in your work and subject matter. Let’s begin by exploring one of the most effective methods for initiating a value study, in the form of a still life!

Starting with an easy to draw still life

simple tonal drawing of a cube
One of the most effective ways to understand how to capture values – is by starting with a simple, tonal value drawing (subject matter).

To start out, give yourself something very easy to draw. Above you will see a tonal value drawing of a cube. I chose this because it is simple in form and is very clear about which areas are dark and light.

For example, the front plane of the cube is clearly the brightest part of the drawing, while the shadow behind the cube is clearly the darkest area. Then, the middle tone parts of the drawing can be seen throughout the drawing – on the sides of the cube, the background, and foreground.

Tonal drawing subject matter

Below, you can see the actual still life set up used for the drawing above. I used a fabric background that is darker than the white cube. Then, I had a lamp shine a spotlight on the set up so I would have clear sense of light to draw from.

tonal value subject matter example of how to create your own tonal study

You can see from the photograph above, that there is great clarity in the simple form of the value drawing subject. Which allows you to study value without the hindrance of trying to figure something out that is overly complex.

I do not recommend to make your tonal value drawing from a photograph however. As I drew this one directly from the still life setup I created to observe “live”. I simply wanted to show what the set up looked like in real life through the photo.

Quick tip: Take a grayscale photo

photograph of an easy to draw still life
A gray scale photo will help you to see values clearly before creating your tonal drawing

Above you will see the same photograph I took of the still life but with a grayscale filter over it. Doing this can be an easy way for you to be able to get an idea of what the values look like without the distraction of color. So, if you are having a difficult time discerning the values of what you are painting – simply take a photo of it and put a monochromatic filter over it. It can be a great tool! Get more tools that will help you to simplify.

Simplify your tonal drawing

It is physically impossible for us to draw every value that we see in real life. We do not have the tools to be able to do so. As well, to even attempt to do so would probably drive anyone crazy! There are simply too many…

charcoal drawing of a sculpture. value drawing for beginners
Tonal drawing of a figure by Elisabeth Larson Koehler

So, it is important to learn how to simplify when making a tonal value drawing . The drawing of the cube above is simplified down to 4 values. As well, the drawing directly above is an example of a simplified drawing.

In order to simplify you need to compartmentalize the values you see into categories. For example, all the light values you see should be categorized as ‘light values’, all the middle value values you see would be in the ‘middle value; category, and all the dark values you see would be in the ‘dark values’ category.

value drawing diagram
Tonal value drawing, values breakdown

Above is a photograph of the still life used for the above drawing. It is also a diagram showing how to divide the the values that you see. You can see how nearly the entire right side of the object can be categorized as ‘light values’. There are of course areas that are a little darker or lighter within the ‘light value’ area. However, the differences are subtle enough to categorize the whole area under the same value. The same is true for the middle tone values and dark values.

Also, notice how the diagram shows how the value areas as shapes. This is exactly how to look at and draw values. Try to see them as areas that have specific shapes.

Value and shading simplified

Elisabeth Larson Koehler, Drawing of a Rose, value and shading simplified
Tonal value sketch of a rose, Elisabeth Larson Koehler

When making a tonal value drawing even more complex objects can easily be simplified by categorizing their values. Above is a drawing of a rose – a rather complex subject. See how there are three main values present – Light, medium and dark. By only using three values, we can get a sense of light from the drawing very quickly. In addition, there are very clear value shapes. For example, if you look at the petals you will notice that they have very clear and distinctive shapes.

Tonal drawing (video) tutorial

I hope that this practical introduction of how to put tonal value drawing into practice was helpful. If you would like to get a better big picture introduction to tonal value and shading check out Introductory guide to tonal values.

And If you have any questions or comments leave them in the comment section below!

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    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

    Art Studio Life exists for you to be able to stay inspired, learn, and improve your skills.

    Elisabeth Larson Koehler creator of art studio life
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    16 thoughts on “Tonal Value Drawing Techniques: How to Create a Value Study”

    1. Estimada y admirada Elizabeth muchas gracias por tus valiosos aportes que me son de gran ayuda para seguir aprendiendo,saludos desde Perú.

    2. Daniel Philippron

      Dear Elisabeth,
      Thank you very much for your advices related to tonal drawing. Near you photo on there is a nice man face drawed. I am in search of a drawing paper with a texture where a line is dominating. Can you tell me which brand / type of paper you have used ?
      Thank you in advance Daniel

        1. Daniel Philippron

          Hi Elisabeth,

          Sorry sorry for my late reply. You confirm this drwaing paper that many artists a refering to.
          Many thanks again.

    3. רותי כהן

      אליזבת יקרה
      תודה על ההצגה
      לא היה לי ברור מה מטרת ההצגה
      האם באמצעות האור והצל ליצור את הציור?
      בהערכה רבה
      רותי כהן

      1. שלום רותי, כן, אני משתמש גם באור וגם בצל כדי ליצור גם רישומים וגם ציורים. מכיוון שלא ניתן לחוש אור ברישום בציור ללא חשכה, חשוב מאוד שיהיו גם צללים. אני מנסה להבהיר מאוד את שלי בכך שיש לי אורות חזקים וכהים. אני מקווה שזה עוזר! איחולים לבביים,

    4. Your drawings stir something very deep. It is the world I would like to live in. Maybe one day I will have the peace of mind and luxury to do so. Till then I will look at your drawings and transform myself there.

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