Tonal value exercise

With the following tonal value exercise, you can approach a complex subject in an easy way.

Tonal values refer to values from light to dark. The world around us consists of shapes and colors, but we can also look at it from a different perspective; we can observe the differences between light and dark. Thanks to these differences in light and dark, we perceive three dimensions.

We are going to paint this head, it’s from a statue. At first glance, it may seem like a daunting challenge. You will need:

  • Canvas or paper.
  • Soft pencil or charcoal and a hard pencil or ballpoint pen.
  • Black and white paint.
  • Brushes.
  • Water container, kitchen paper, palette, and optionally a palette knife.
  • Reference photo:

Let’s start by sketching the image on the canvas. It’s not about practicing proportions and such at this point. Choose the easiest route; print the photo and cover the back of it with a soft pencil or charcoal.

veeg de achterkant in met houtskool of potlood

Rub the back with charcoal or pencil

Then, place the photo on your canvas or paper and secure it so it won’t shift. Now, you can use an ordinary HB pencil to trace the main lines. Draw the contours of the head on your paper or canvas. Also, outline the main shadows.

Personally, I prefer working on a toned surface. You can read more about it in this blog. As you can see, I have a somewhat greyish canvas to work on.

Doordrukken belangrijkste vormen

Transferring the main shapes

If you clearly see a difference in tonal values somewhere, outline it with a line. This will provide you with a guide. So, don’t think in terms of ‘here’s an eye, and there’s a nose,’ but focus purely on the shadow areas and consider them as shapes. Below, you can see my sketch as an example. Once you’re done, remove the photo from your paper.

Schets met lijnen om belangrijke waardeverschillen

Sketch with lines indicating significant value differences

Essentially, we now have a sort of ‘paint by numbers’ drawing. Now, we just need to create the right tonal values and place them in the correct spots.

It’s always good to first identify the darkest dark and the lightest light in the photo. By the way, the darkest dark is not always black, and the lightest light is not always white. Determining the true lightest and darkest areas in the photo is not difficult. In this photo, the darkest dark happens to be almost pure black, and the lightest lights are not quite white. Now that we know this, we have essential information because we know that the rest of the photo must fall somewhere in between!

Donkerste donker en lichtste licht

Darkest dark and lightest light

First, use black to mark the darkest areas. Look in the photo for the absolute darkest parts and consider them as shapes. Put all these shapes in place.

Keep checking yourself: sometimes, a color may appear very dark, but then, look back at the point you’re sure is the darkest. You might suddenly realize that it’s a bit lighter than you thought.

donkerste delen

The darkest areas are in place. Next, we simply think a bit lighter than the black. Look for places in the photo that can all be classified as very dark but not as dark as the previous step. So, also mix some white with your black to make your paint a bit lighter.

Maak je verf een beetje lichter met wat wit

Make your paint a bit lighter with some white

Again, search for the spots where this value needs to go. Here too, only focus on the shapes of that tonal value; don’t pay attention to cheekbones, eye sockets, or similar details.

Stap lichter

Step lighter

You guessed it: now we go a bit lighter again. With each step, you will notice that everything begins to come to life. Gradually, a three-dimensional image will emerge on its own.

Sometimes, it’s challenging to accurately assess tonal values. You can check if you’re on the right track by putting some of your paint on the edge of a piece of paper. Compare it with the value in the photo. This way, you can see if you’ve mixed your paint too dark, too light, or just right. In the image below, you can see that my grey is slightly too dark, so I need to add just a touch more white.

Waarden checken

Checking values

Sometimes, you might see a somewhat distinct separation between the values in your painting; don’t worry about that just yet. When you’ve covered almost all the values, you’ll see that everything will start to work.

Steeds wat lichter

Getting a bit lighter

Continuously go a bit lighter and critically review everything. Sometimes, you might forget something. For example, in the photo above, I forgot to add a shadow to the left side of the eyelid (our left). The lightest light will be addressed only at the very end.

Laatste stap: lichtste delen

Final step: lightest parts

This is a fun and instructive exercise. It teaches you to look at things with nuance. Assessing tonal values is indeed quite tricky, as we can easily be fooled.

For example, if you look at the underside of the jaw on the right side, you’ll see the shadow at the bottom becoming slightly lighter because light from the surroundings reflects back up into the shadow. However, it’s still a fairly dark value. By working from dark to light, there’s a much higher chance that we’ll assess that value correctly.

Of course, this is just one of many ways to create a painting. There are no right or wrong methods, but it’s fun to practice with this approach and discover what it brings.

Good luck and enjoy painting!

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