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How to use tone

How to use tone

Author: Ian Murphy

Understanding the use of tone and to incorporate a strong tonal quality into the drawings.

A key part to my teaching often centres on the understanding and use of tone. I am using this packet to illustrate how a good use of tone can dramatically improve your drawing, and take the level of your work much higher.

This approach takes some time to master, so please persevere.

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The understanding and use of tone

One of the most important points of my drawing practice is to incorporate a strong tonal quality to my images. By rendering the surface with a full range of tone I can successfully achieve a “quality of light” within a drawing.

Tonal Scale

Pagoda Drawing

The tonal range is quite strong in the front left hand corner, this emphasises the close distance as the eye moves across the drawing the tonal range is condensed.

One of my main aims with this drawing was to emphasise the misty quality that was very apparent at the location. To achieve this affect I basically had to really control the range of tone across the sheet. The foreground structure is quite sharp in focus distinct and clear and as such, I have used quite a wide range of tone from a very dark grey through to a distant white. As your eye moves across the pagoda roof you will notice that the tonal range decreases.


The final small pagoda almost hiding away in the mist is generated by a subtle shape just a tone darker than the sky around it.

The tonal range in your drawing

Three Dimensional qualities

Because of the low, viewing angle of this first floor balcony support, the ornate stone structure looks quite dramatic. I have tried to emphasise this by a strong range of tone, and as consequence the form looks quite 3 dimensional.

Top Tip


Most students “dip into” the tonal scale to get a range of tone in their drawing.
Time is usually the major factor as to how varied this tonal range tends to be; dedicate a bit more time, the more varied the tonal range.
Once your composition is planned try to set a tonal challenge for your drawing. Aim to use one end of the tonal scale for the majority of the image and the opposite end of the scale for just one part. You will find that this area could end up as the focal point to your idea.

Drawing Equipment


Make sure you have good drawing equipment ready for the drawing task you are undertaking. I always mention that pencils and graphite sticks should be sharp, and that paper sticks and a good eraser are essential to control the range of tone needed to make the image successful.