The Importance of Tones and Color Values in Paintings

Tones and hues
Andy Crawford/Getty Images

What tone means in a painting context is simple. It's how light or dark a color is, rather than what the actual color or hue is. Yet implementing tone in painting is often bothersome to artists because we get distracted by the strong appeal of color.

Every color can produce a variety of tones; how light or dark these depends on the color. It's important to realize that tones are relative, that's why how dark or light they seem depends on what's going on around them. A tone that's obviously light in one context may seem darker in another if it's surrounded by even lighter tones.

The number or range of tones that can be produced also varies. Lighter hues (such as yellows) will produce a smaller range of tones than darker ones (such as blacks).

Why is tone important? Here's what that master of color Henri Matisse had to say in his A Painter's Notes, 1908, "When I have found the relationship of all the tones the result must be a living harmony of all the tones, a harmony not unlike that of a musical composition."

In other words, if a painting is going to be successful, you must get your tones right, otherwise, it's just going to be visual noise. The first step to doing this is to remove color from the equation, to create a range of tone using only black.

  • 01 of 07

    Practice Tone by Painting a Gray Scale or Value Scale

    Tone painting worksheet
    The best way to truly understand the of tone, and the range of tones a color can have, is by painting up a tonal scale. This art worksheet, printed onto a painting sketchbook page, is the one being used in the photo. Photo ©2010 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

    The two extreme tones or values are black (very dark) and white (very light). Recognizing the tone or value of a color, rather than the hue, is important to a painter because successful paintings have tonal contrast in them, or a range of values.

    A painting with only mid-tones risks being flat and dull. Value or tonal contrast creates visual interest or excitement in a painting. A high-key painting is one in which the contrasts in value or tone are extreme, from black right through the range of mid-tones down to white. A low-key painting is one in which the tonal range is narrower.

    To familiarize yourself with tone and value, paint a gray scale using black and white paint. This has white at the one end, black at the other, and a range of tones in between. Print this art worksheet on a sheet of watercolor paper or card for an a quick, easy-to-use grid. Start with a block of white and a block of black, and gradually work your way towards a gray scale with nine tones.

    Now repeat the exercise, using different hues to create value scales for the colors you use frequently.

  • 02 of 07

    Separating Tone or Value and Color

    Painting Color Class: Tones or Values
    Painting Color Class: Tones or Values Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

    It's possible to create a value scale with every color in your palette. Once you've painted a grayscale, it's well worth the time painting a series of value scales with every color you use frequently. Then if you're struggling to get the right tone in a painting, you can easily consult your value scale. (Print this art worksheet for a ready-made grid.)

    If you're using watercolor, one way to do this is to gradually add a little more water to the color each time. Or to paint with glazes, creating a series of values by painting a series of blocks, each glazed over once more than the previous block.

    With oils or acrylics, the easiest way to lighten a color is to add white. But this is not the only way and not always the ideal as it reduces the intensity of the color. You can also lighten a color by adding another color of a lighter value. For example, to lighten a dark red, you can add a little yellow.

    Exactly what colors do when mixed together takes practice and experimentation, but it's time well spent.

  • 03 of 07

    The Importance of Tonal Range in a Painting

    Painting Color Class: Tones or Values
    Painting Color Class: Tones or Values Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

    When a painting isn't working, check the tonal range in it. Focus on tone or value, rather than the colors in the painting. It may be that the range of tones in the painting is too narrow, or incorrect in terms of aerial perspective.

    An easy way to do this is to take a digital photo and then use a photo-editing program to turn it into a grayscale photo using the "remove color" function. If the tonal range is very narrow, add a few highlights and darks.

    If you look at the photo above, you'll see how close in tone the yellow, orange, and red colors are, while the green is comparatively dark in tone.

  • 04 of 07

    Dark or Light Tones First?

    Painting Color Class: Tones or Values
    Painting Color Class: Tones or Values Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

    Some painters start a painting with the highlights, some with the extreme darks, and then make sure these are maintained throughout the painting. It's easier than starting with mid-tones.

    When your painting is 'finished', check whether you've still got your "darkest darks" and "lightest lights". If you haven't, the painting isn't finished yet and you need to adjust the tones.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Painting Tones or Values -- Green, Red, Yellow

    Painting Color Class: Tones or Values
    Painting Color Class: Tones or Values Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

    It can be very rewarding to mix green, but also one where you need to take notes about what you do so you can remember how to mix it next time! The green you get depends on which yellow(s) you mixed with which blue(s). To get a lighter tone green, try adding yellow, not white. To get a darker tone green, try adding blue, not black.

    Pablo Picasso is quoted as saying: "They'll sell you thousands of greens. Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any sort of green you like; but that particular green, never."

    If you want to lighten a red, you'll most likely automatically reach for white paint and end up with a range of pinks. Try mixing red with a light yellow instead of only white.

    Yellow is one of the hardest colors to visualize in a tonal range, as even a 'dark' yellow such as cadmium yellow deep seems 'light' when placed next to many other colors. But while you won't get the same range of tone as with, say, Prussian blue, you do still get a range of tones with any yellow.

  • 06 of 07

    Learning to See Tone or Value in a Painting

    Painting Color Class: Tones or Values
    Painting Color Class: Tones or Values Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

    Learning to see tone or value will help you create paintings that hold the viewer's interest. Tone is very much relative -- what is a dark tone in one context will appear lighter in another. It depends on the context.

    When painting, get into the habit of squinting your eyes at your subject, which reduces the level of detail you see and emphasizes the light and dark areas. Mid-tones are harder to judge. Compare them to the adjacent tones in the subject and to the lightest or darkest tone. If you struggle with this, a monochrome filter will help you to distinguish tones or value in a subject.

    If you struggle with tone or value, consider doing a value study before painting with color, or painting entirely in monochrome until you're more comfortable with tone or value. In his 7 Steps to a Successful Painting Brian Simons says: "If you get the values, you’ve got the painting."

  • 07 of 07

    Tone is Relative to Other Tones

    Painting tone or value
    How light or dark a tone seems depends on its context Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

    How light or dark a tone or value appears also depends on what other tones are near it. The two vertical bands of tone in the image above are of a consistent tone, yet seem to get darker or lighter depending on how light or dark the background is.

    This effect is most noticeable with mid-tones, then with very light or very dark tones. And, of course, it applies regardless of the actual color or hue. Take a look at another example, in brown tones if you need convincing.

    So what use is it knowing about the tone being relative to the tones around it? For starters, it shows that if you want a light tone, you shouldn't just reach for white (or add lots of white to a color). If the overall painting is dark, a mid-tone may be light enough for the effect you're after, while an extremely light tone may be too harsh.

    The same, of course, applies to darks. If you need a shadow, for example, judge how dark it wants to be by the tones that you've already got in the painting. Don't automatically go for an extreme dark; the contrast may be too great for the overall balance of the photo.

    Think of tone as an element in a painting's composition. The tonal contrast or range in a painting, and how these lights and darks are arranged, needs to be considered when you're planning a painting (or trying to figure out why it isn't working). And a painting doesn't necessarily need a wide tonal range to be successful; a limited range of tones can be very powerful if you use relative tone effectively. As with the number of colors you use in a painting, less often produces a better result.