Setting the Tone

Lisa Larrabee

What do you consider before starting a drawing?  An obvious choice would be to start with your subject.  Then, maybe consider the composition and how you want to place your subject.  What you want to include versus what you might choose to leave out.  Which medium do you intend to use, etc.   How much thought do you put into selecting a background tone?   You may miss an opportunity if you are not thinking about these options.  

Adding white pastel to a charcoal drawing on gray-toned paper - Lisa Larrabee.

Choosing a Tone

A tone refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a color.  


When you choose to work on white paper, you begin by adding values in one direction of a value scale.  The lightest value is already established. You can only add in darker values.  Working on white can give your artwork a light and airy quality if you let much of the white remain.  It can also allow you to build luminous colors or a full value range from white to black.


Working on a mid-tone allows you to develop your artwork on a value scale (from the middle out) in two directions.  Blocking in darker shadows or adding brighter, lighter values will help you quickly establish a sense of light and shadow.  Working on a mid-tone can also act as a unifier if you allow the tone to show through different areas of the artwork. Note that drawing on a mid-tone gray paper will feel very different than creating the same drawing on a mid-tone tan or warmer-tone paper.


When you begin on a black surface, you can only add values in one direction of a value scale (i.e., by adding white).  Black absorbs light rather than reflecting it, which may desaturate your colors or darken the values of your medium.  To see how opaque your medium may be, create a test sample to see how light the values will be over the black.  This will help you establish the range of values you are working in over the black surface.

Value Traps

Since value relationships are relative, be on the lookout for traps!  Working on each background tone has its own surprises (or typical mistakes).   It is important to establish some general value relationships to provide context before adding detail.  Our brain will subconsciously adapt to the values that we are currently working within (even when we consciously know that we have not yet added our darkest shapes or brightest highlights).

When starting on a white surface, block in the dark and mid-tone areas first.  If you focus on the details too soon before adding in a dark background, you may find that all of the values in the subject are too light.  The reverse can be true when working on black.  

When starting on a mid-tone, it is essential to establish the value range that you want to have in the finished piece.  For example, if you wait to add in all of the highlights at the end, you may have to go back and adjust any subtle value relationships. Your brain may have interpreted the mid-tone as a lighter value against the darker values because you did not have any lighter values for context. 

Consider your medium.  If you are working in graphite, you won't have the full range of dark values that you would have if working in charcoal.  Explore what your value range is from light to dark using your chosen media on your selected background.  If you want your drawing to be high-key (limited to lighter values) or low-key (limited to darker values), establish how dark and how light you want to go and then build value relationships within your chosen boundaries. 

General to Specific

I recommend developing your artwork from general to specific so that you are building shapes and values in relationship to everything else. 

Drawing stages from general to specific by Lisa Larrabee

In this example, I used graphite pencils on white paper.  After blocking in my initial sketch, I immediately began establishing the values over everything that was not my brightest light.  This is a similar approach to toning the paper before you start. This allows you to preserve the white of the paper where you know values will be lighter.  Note that if you tone the entire paper with graphite or charcoal, you will often not be able to fully erase it back to white.

Art Challenge

  • Choose a simple subject to draw.
  • Ensure you have a good range of value shapes from light to dark.
  • Draw or transfer your subject onto different values of paper.
  • Draw from general to specific.  
  • Establish your darkest and lightest values and keep the value relationships in mind as you develop your drawing.
  • I recommend drawing the same subject multiple times to contrast the differences.
Demos of a mouth cast using different drawing media and paper choices - Larrabee

From left to right:

  • Black and white charcoal pencils on Strathmore Toned Gray paper.
  • Vine charcoal and charcoal pencils on drawing paper (white).
  • Graphite HB pencil and white pastel pencil on Toned Tan paper.

Experiment with toned papers or tone your own with graphite or vine charcoal. Check out my previous post for more examples of working general to specific from a toned background:  Drawing General to Specific: Graphite vs. Charcoal.

Did you accept the Art Challenge?  Share your progress on our private forum with friends of the Art Verve Academy.

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on her instructional blog at
or visit her website at
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