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Tone Before Color: Light in Dark, Dark in Light

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tone before color header

We’ve all been there. We’re looking at a painting or a sketch and there’s something not quite right — “off” somehow. But can we see what the problem is? Is it a compositional problem? Is it a color problem? It could be any number of things. But, it could be a balance problem. Did you ever wonder why Old Master paintings like this one below work so well? They were masters of light and dark tones before they mastered color.

vermeer milkmaid color and tone study

This article is really for beginners who are starting to learn about tone. But, you know, it never hurts to remind yourself of some basic visual grammer. This quick post is about a couple of ways to think about and tackle achieving balance (specifically tonal balance) in your sketches and paintings. This tutorial is in black and white so you might be wondering what this has to do with color. It actually has a lot to do with color! All color has tonal value and tonal weight which can really affect your composition. So before you even lay down a hue, you should be thinking about these techniques.

Dark can overwhelm light

The best place to start is to demonstrate how different tonal values have different “weight.” For example, have a look at these two sketches. You’ll see a couple of boxes (“A” and “B”) which have different tonal values sitting on a fulcrum, like a set of weighing scales.

balanding tone between light and dark

In the first sketch it’s fair to say that box “B” looks heavier than box “A” — right? Of course, that can possibly be put down to size, too. In the second sketch, both boxes are the same size. Box “B,” because of its tonal weight, still looks heavier. The darker the tone, the heavier the weight in the picture. Have a look at these sketches below. Can you see how the blocks of tone are being balanced?

black weighs more than white to our eyes diagram

Measuring a painting’s tone

We can apply this approach to our paintings. Easier said than done? I’ve sketched out a couple of examples for you here just to show you how easy an approach it is. On the left is the “diagram” of the tonal boxes on the fulcrum. On the right is the tonal sketch, which shows you how those tonal values have been used.

Examples of tonal balance without considering color
Balance is achieved through symmetrically equal areas of tone — the easiest and simplest method.

Take a look at paintings when you see them from this perspective. Try to ignore the color and focus solely on the tonal values.

tone color
Here, tonal weight is doing all the work. Would it still balance if the three darker horsemen were erased?

Exchanging light and dark tones

There are loads of ways you can explore this and other ways of thinking about balancing tone in your paintings. I’d like to show you one more. It’s a method of balancing tone by “exchanging” light and dark. It’s an approach you see from the Old Masters — like the Vermeer painting below. But you’ll also see a lot of concept artists use it.

breaking color down tone to see how vermeer balanced tones

This is Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid”(1658). I’ve turned it into a black and white image so we can look at the tonal values more easily. I also put it through some filters so we can simplify the painting into blocks of tone. Look at the last one. That balanced exchange of tonal areas (a bit of Yin and Yang) light in dark and dark in light, helps achieve tonal balance.

Light in dark, dark in light

So again, let’s put this into practice. Remember, you could cut your tone horizontally, vertically, diagonally left or right, up or down (or when you’re confident explore what happens if you divide your frame into quarters). Let’s keep this simple for the sake of clarity. Light areas in dark on the left balanced by dark areas in light on the right.

bob cheshire painting with color removed; tone before color

This brief tutorial has hopefully given you a couple of quick and very easy ways to think about and tackle balancing tone in your work. It’s certainly not exhaustive, but it’ll get you started. Basic visual grammer does work. The next time you’re looking at a sketch or painting that isn’t quite working, maybe just take a second to look at its tonal values.

More about Bob

Bob Cheshire is a concept artist who specializes in key-frame illustrations, pre-visualisation, pitch, and presentation artwork for film, television, video games, and theme parks. You can check out more of his work on his site, including some great concept art from Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor 2, and Wrath of the Titans.