Studying tones in charcoal

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'Tones' have to do with light (used as a  noun),

and the lack of light (used as a noun).

The word 'tone' means; 'to stretch'. In our context, what we are stretching is light, the noun, from 'white' to 'black', or 'light' to 'no light'. It is this variation in light, the noun, from light to dark, used as adjectives, such as the lighter side of a blue dress or a darker shadow on the wall, that is the powerhouse that makes your work look 'three dimensional'. 

'TONES' are the lights and the darks in the world around you.

Tones are ...


All colours have lights and darks. Not all lights and darks are colours.

This is important because those who wish to torpedo and destroy fine art have linked the two, but I won't get into that now. This little rant is to remind them that they have failed.

I'll give a brief exploration here as to how tones work, but I don't want to go too far. This is not an 'on line course', and if you want to get this totally perfected and under your belt as an artist, you need to go out and do it with someone who knows how to do it.

The world is three dimensional. That simply means that there are three lengths; left to right, up and down, and forward or backward. Every thing has these three lengths. A cube is a perfect example.

Well, what this means that an unmoving light source, such as the sun or a light bulb, that hits anything in this world, hits it on three sides, sometimes the sides are clearly defined, such as in the cube, or less well defined, but still there, as in a sphere or cylinder, etc. And what this means is that the light when it hits any surface will be reflected back to you with at least three different intensities. One area of the subject will appear well lit, one area which is very poorly lit, usually a shadowed area, called 'dark' and an area which is in between the two, called the 'middle'. So the result is the three intensities of light that you see in anything; a light area where the reflection from the light source is the strongest, a dark area where the reflection from the light source is the weakest, and and area in between those two, which is neither as dark as the dark nor as light as the light.

These are your light, middle and dark tones.

Now when you look at that cube, and see those three different tones, you can clearly see the cube. If the three tones of the cube were all the same, all light or middle or dark, you would not see the cube. You'd bump your nose on it before you saw it. (Yes, I know that if all the sides of the cube were coloured differently, you'd see the cube, tones or no tones. I'm talking about tones, not nit picking.) The point being that it is the changing of the lights and darks on things we see that shows us that the surface of the thing we are looking at is not flat, but is changing, because the light is reflecting back to us in various degrees of lightness. So the surface MUST be changing, even if we can't see it. If the light is not changing, then we can safely conclude that the surface is not changing, i.e. flat. If the light is changing, then we can safely conclude that the surface is not flat, but is changing somehow, up down, left right, back forwards.

So, another of Bob's rules:

a changing light indicates a changing surface

a non-changing light indicates a non-changing surface

So, when you look at something, and you see the tones of that something change, you know the surface of the thing you are looking at is also changing! If you look at a ball, and see that as you look from the center of the ball to it's edge, you'll see the tones change, and so you know the edges of that ball are changing because the light coming back at you is changing, the edges of the ball are moving farther away from you, or if you are inside the ball, they'd be moving closer to you...?


This is how it is in the real world of three dimensions!

Okay, so, what does this have to do with drawing or painting? It has everything to do with drawing or painting. Your drawing surface is two dimensional, not three. So, how do you create a third dimension on that surface, with out punching a  hole into it?

You can't, you must learn how to create the illusion of a third dimension.

In the real world, we know the surface IS changing because the intensity of the light reflecting back to us is changing. On our paper, we apply the same principle, but in reverse. We give the illusion of change by changing the lights and darks in our work. If we change the lights and darks in our works, it give the illusion that the light is changing, and therefore the illusion that the surface on our paper is changing.

That is how important tones are! They above all else give the illusion of three dimensions in your art work.

(to be continued ... someday ... maybe ... read the book ... do the course ... do something ...)

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We study tones after we have drawing under control, and we use charcoal as our medium to study tones. Charcoal is just burnt wood. Below are some images of students who are studying how to make their work look three dimensional, and when it is not looking that way, how to find out why it's not, and fix it and get it looking that way.

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