Tonal Value Drawing

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tonal value drawing, Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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Getting a solid understanding and grasp on tonal values is the best thing you can do for your drawing and painting. As tonal values is one of the most important elements in both painting and drawing! Without clear values you will never achieve a sense of light in your drawing and or painting.

The best way to learn about values is to put it into practice yourself. As well, I think it best to start out drawing. This way you do not have to deal with the complexity of color and the texture of paint. Grab some artist soft vine charcoal or woodless graphite pencils , an eraser, and some drawing paper. So, you are faced with just black and white and can get a solid grasp on tonal value drawing before incorporating colors into the mix.

Here I am presenting some examples of how you can go about doing some of your own value studies. As well, I hope to impart the importance of simplifying when it comes to the study of value.

Start with an easy to draw still life

easy to draw tonal value still life

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.

Above 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. You can see from the photograph that there is great clarity in the simple form 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 value studies from photographs however. I drew mine directly from the still life itself. I simply wanted to show what the set up looked like in real life through the photo.

photograph of an easy to draw still life

Quick tip – take a grayscale photo

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 values

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
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

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
Elisabeth Larson Koehler, a Rose

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.

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!

Elisabeth Larson Koehler creator of art studio life

Hi! I am Elisabeth

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