What is Value and Tonein Drawing?

What is Value and Tone in Drawings?

Understanding value and tone in your drawings, and how to use it, will empower you to produce more powerful drawings, and represent what you want in your work more dramatically. This article will provide you with an in-depth description of what value is, and how to utilize it to your artwork.

What is value in drawing? Light defines an object, which enables us to see things.  When an artist is drawing something they will create the illusion of light on paper, by being able to produce different forms of color and tonal value. Value explained simply is how dark or light an object appears. It is among the basic elements of art, and it’s better understood when it’s visualized as a gradient or a scale.

What is Value in Drawing?

None of the things that you do are arbitrary. Nothing in an image is mindless copying. When you're drawing something, what you're producing is a physical object. This is an object that is formed by value.

Fundamentally, what that means is that value is comparable to grammar. Everything will hinge upon that value structure that you apply. Imagine if you speak in a new language, and you're not really familiar with it yet, so you're just putting words out of order. If you mess up your value, this is what you do to your image and people would struggle to understand you.

You'll either present a cohesive structure, or you'll have different words. So the better you get your grammar to be, the more familiar you get with all the essential parts of the language. People will understand you, and they'll focus on your message, rather than trying to decipher what you’re saying to them.

Understanding the Difference Between Tone and Value

What each and every value describes is a surface. It gives you information not only about your object but also about the scene around it. You’ll be able to understand everything about a scene just by using value. This is because of your brain. Your perceptual system pretty much separates a value from the tone. It is almost like a bonus on top of value that just gives you added information.

There are all kinds of different purposes, but really what tone is for is that it helps you separate even further. When you want to present an audience something that you've made, you want them to fully understand your concept.

Distinguishing Objects

The original function of value is to help you separate all the different objects in the world. It enables you to decipher what's going around you and what's the environment like. As you're walking around, you're interpreting so much different information not just visual.

Everything that you see, your brain will give you the information that you will need to understand the scene. That's why learning about art is pretty much learning to slow that process down and getting that information to be consciously interpreted. So what you're after is stopping that process and analyzing each and everything.

Convey Scenes

Tone gives you a vast rate of meaning. You don't even need to know color to be able to convey scenes and pretty much everything in them. Tone is the added bonus and will definitely set your mood, but just value by itself will define everything about the world that you're trying to make.

Even without you being able to see what's going on, your brain just gives you the idea that there is more going on. From just a narrative standpoint, you could have a face that's wholly revealed on one side and completely dark on the other.

That's something that you'll see quite often in movies as it gives you an ominous, dramatic mood. All of these things are provided to you by your brain. To your entire audio, it's like anything that they see that you've done, they immediately put all those assumptions in there.

Why is value or tone important in art?

The right value and tone would be the one that actually carries the meaning that you would like your scene to have. This is what the values and tones are actually saying about your view. They're describing the object, the material, the light, and the environment.

Your first main step is just getting your tones and values correct. To do this, you need to ask yourself these questions;

  • What does it mean when something is lighter or darker?
  • What's the core shadow for, and what does it actually mean?
  • When do I introduce bounce light and where would it come from? Etc.

Just getting to be more curious and getting to explore more about the actual physics that go behind all this stuff will help you in many ways. All you have to do is just be curious about what is actually going on in the physical world. For instance, when there's light coming in through your window, what does it happen? What would happen if all your walls were black?

You would simply get a reflective object in there to see how it’s different to everything. Getting more curious not just rushing through a study will help you have something useful to show at the end of the day. So if you want to keep it interesting, introducing all those different elements to it and all those different complexities will not only make your work better, but it's also going to keep it interesting.

What is a Value Scale and How to Render It?

A value scale determines how the lightness or darkness of a surface is. To create one, you're going to draw a long rectangle about the length of your paper, and then you're going to make it about an inch tall. You'll divide that rectangle into five sections. To get five sections, you need to draw for vertical lines. In the first section, I like to start with the darkest value.

You’re going to pick the farthest part either on the right or left, and you’ll be shaded in with a really dark pencil as that's going to be the darkest value. The square next to that it's going to be just a little bit lighter. When you do the next square, make it a little less pressure.

It's all about the pressure you apply to get that lighter value. The next one even less pressure. Now, if you realize that you started too dark, you can always make the second square darker so that it has a gradual change from dark to light. The fourth square should be super light and less pressure.

Hold the pencil super soft and make it light. Some people select to start the light and go the dark, but you don't have to. Finish the value scales up by deciding to make that second one just a little bit darker. So you have five step value; darkest, a little lighter, a little bit lighter, lighter and then white.

Shading Different Forms

If you want to create perfect shading, then you need to know that it all starts with understanding how to shade basic forms. We're going to start by just creating shapes and then adding value to those shapes to create the illusion of form. Let's first determine what a shape is. A shape is a flat enclosed line. If we take a line and close it up, you've created a shape.


The form version of a circle is a sphere. To shade a sphere, we start with a shape and then by adding value or shading, we create the illusion of a form. This is all created because we have specific locations of value which determines the darkness or lightness of a color. It's how we understand the world around us, and of course, most importantly it's how we understand forms now. These locations of value tell us where the light is originating from.

These locations include:

  • The highlight
  • The area on the form where light is hitting most directly
  • The mid-tone which is a location of the middle value
  • The area of core shadow where the value is usually the darkest on the form
  • A reflected highlight where light is bouncing back off of objects that surround the form
  • An area of cast shadow where light is prevented from hitting because the form is in the way

You can draw the circle by moving your shoulder around as you slowly bring the pencil to the surface. Once the circle is in place, we can refine its contours and then start adding value. You’re going to start in the area of core shadow and using an H pencil initially. Fill in almost the entire sphere with an application of this H pencil.

Go back with a softer graphite pencil and progressively darken the area shadow. You can go back over the top of this area with another application of the H pencil, smoothing out any of the textural marks that were left by the softer graphite. We'll throw a bit of cache shadow underneath, leaving that area of reflected highlight and now we've transformed a circle into a sphere.


A square is turned into a cube. We'll start by merely drawing a square. Again, we'll start with the harder graphite pencil initially and progressively move on to the softer graphite pencil. Once we have the square in place, we'll just draw three lines coming out from each of the three corners that are on the far left and then we'll just connect those ends to finish off the overall form of the cube.

With your H pencil, you'll go back and start to develop the value. Progressively, you’ll get darker with your applications, and it's always better when you're working with graphite to make lighter applications initially, and gradually get darker. It's considerably easier to make an area darker [if you need to].

Instead of making it lighter. Once we've got our initial H pencil applications on the surface, we'll go back with this softer graphite. Again, this is the general layout pencil and start to push the values a bit darker. Our light source is consistent for each of the forms that we're drawing here. In each case, the light sources originating from the upper right-hand corner.

Here means that for our cube, the top piece will be the area of highlight, the front facing part of the cube will be the mid-tone and in the area on the left side of the cube, is the area of core shadow. Drop a bit of cache shadow right behind it, and you'll go back and darken up some of the values a bit further, pushing the range of value in this cube. You’ll slightly darken the edges right at the bottom, and you've transformed a square into a cube.


Next, let's transform a triangle into a pyramid. Here again, we'll start by drawing the basic shape, which of course is a triangle. Once we have the triangle in place, you'll bring a diagonal line down from the top of the triangle and then connect the end with the left bottom corner of the triangle. You’re now ready to start adding the value or the shading.

Start with the H pencil and progressively get darker with our application. You'll also go back over the top with a softer graphite pencil making the values quite a bit darker. In the case of the pyramid, we only see the mid tone which is the front facing side of the pyramid and the area of course shadow which is the other side of the thick pyramid that's the visible-the left side of the pyramid.

The area of high light is obscured from this point of view. Add a bit of cache shadow, and of course, it should follow the same form as what we drew. In this case, will be a triangular shape and then we'll go back with the softer graphite, darkening the values even further. We can clean up the applications with the H pencil and smooth out any of the texture that was left by the softer graphite pencil.


We'll start by drawing an ellipse at the top and then two vertical lines down from each end of the ellipse and make a curved bottom. A common mistake some folks make is creating a straight line across the bottom, forgetting that the cylinder is round. The bottom portion should be rounded as well. Since the cylinder is rounded, you will have a bit of reflected highlight on the far left. This area of a reflected highlight is not very strong, but it still should be present.

That means that our area of core shadow will actually be closer to the center portion of the cylinder, although still predominantly on the left side of the cylinder. Once you've got your H applications in place, you'll go back with this softer graphite and again start to darken the values. You can again revisit the applications with the H pencil and smooth the gradations of the value of it further. You'll notice that the value change from the area shadow to the area of mid-tone and highlight is a slow transition.

This is called a gradation of value. This is happening because the cylinder is curved much as we saw with the sphere. This type of gradation of value is less likely to occur on the cube or the pyramid. Add a bit of cash shadow for the cylinder, and now your cylinder is complete.


We'll tackle one final basic form, and this will be a cone. We'll start it similarly as we did with the pyramid, but this time we'll add a rounded bottom. Just as we saw with the cylinder, there will be a gradation of value. That means there'll be a smooth transition from the area of core shadow to mid tone. This is because the cone is rounded just like the sphere. Just like the cylinder, there'll be an area of reflected highlight on the left side. It's not quite that strong, but it does need to be present.

You'll also see that the area of core shadow is closer to the center. It's still predominantly on the left side of the cone but closer to the center than you might expect. You'll add an area of cast shadow right behind the cone, and this should mimic the form of the cone. Progressively, you'll get darker with your applications of value, extending the value range and making the contrast a bit stronger. You can now go back with the H pencil and smooth out some of the texture that's left by the softer graphite.

Understanding how to add shading to basic forms like these will help you tackle even the most complex forms in your own drawings.

Value Drawing Techniques

To know and understand the techniques of value drawing, We need to create 3 circles and 3 cones. You can trace something to make those circles or draw them with your hand as long as it looks nice and neat. We're going to also add a cone shape underneath each one to also add value to the cones. To draw a cone, start off like you're making a triangle and then at the end, make a curve to connect it.

Repeat the same procedure underneath each one of the circles. Start on the edge and when you're adding value, try to go with the shape of the object.

Apply tone using a circular motion, but you really don't want to get any scratchy looking. You want it to look all nice, smooth and fluid. It’s okay if some of it goes off the edge, as you can always go back in your race.

Adding that dark area along that edge is going to make it stand out a little bit more. Remember that going in a circular motion is going to help and layers are going to contribute to blend it smoothly, so wherever it rests on the surface that also should be a dark area and fade it up.

In the end, you want to have everything look nice and subtle with no significant jumps from values. Make sure everything is nice and blended. When you get done, it's always good to clean up the edges with your eraser. You are done with the first one, and you could do the second one underneath

Blending the Cone

Start off with adding value starting from the left to the right. The cone is supposed to be curved like an ice cream cone. So going with the curve when you're blending and making that circular motion to fill in those gaps. It’s essential that they're trotted. Go in the same direction, but sometimes you have to go on the edge to get that filled in.

Blend your first layer and have it taper off as it gets to the light stores and then you can move on to your second layer. Make sure it has just as a good blending in contrast as the one you drew earlier.


We're going to move on to cross-hatching. Cross-hatching is a unique technique to use using lines to create value. You can start on the edge and then go with the curb of the line of the circle. Fill those lines in nice and neat some could go a little bit longer in the middle and then it starts going with the curve again.

This technique is challenging to start off with, but you'll get the hang of it as you get used to it. You can add more contrast, but you should never blend your cross-hatching.

You're blending with the lines we're going to do the same thing with your cone. Start on the bottom left, taper it off as you get close to the light source. Go in between a little bit more contrast in that area where it's close to the edge, adding lines and pressing down a little bit harder.


The last value scale you're going to use stippling, which is dots. Start to create a darker area by using more dots and then it gets lighter as it gets a lot closer to the light source.  Use a thin permanent marker if you have any small thin permanent markers or pins that would be great to use. Alternatively, use your pencil, but that will take a lot of time. You're going to create your darkest areas with more dots over, and you want it to look subtle and gradual as you get closer to the light source.

Start scattering my dots as you get closer to the light source and bring them closer together. As it gets closer to the darker area, add a little bit around the edge there too. You’re going to make your contrast areas even darker. So just adding more details, more dots and those concentrated areas to create that darker edge. It has a pretty interesting cool effect.


It's starting to take shape once you get to this point. Take a lot of patience and time. It is a cool technique once you get it down. I really want you to notice how it goes from dark, medium light to white. You're going to do the same thing for your cone shape. You can decide to choose your light source to be kind of shining in the middle. Just scatter them more as you get closer to the light source and then get darker as you get closer to the edge. That is how you will do for the cone. It takes a lot of time and effort, so make sure you're putting in the time and effort into these drawings.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of improvedrawing.com and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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