Tonal Techniques

In the sense that graphite pencils work best with the linear form of expression, colored pencils work best with the tonal form.

Tonal drawing refers to the effect produced by pencil strokes applied so closely together and so compactly that they appear to merge. This is done without smudging or rubbing, and the tones achieved in this way lose almost all suggestion of line.


Tones are made with a colored pencils point (sharp, dull, or blunt) or with its shaft (the side of the lead). The quality of tone produced can be strongly or subtly influenced by the shape of the pencil's point, as well as by the method in which the pencil is used. A slow and careful stroking with a very fine point or the pencil's shaft, will yield a much coarser effect.

Individual temperament also influences color pencil tones. The same pencil in different hands may produce very different tones, with a range in appearance from loosely vigorous to machinelike.


As stated earlier, the pressure with which a colored pencil is applied has a great effect on that color's value. A wide scale of tonal values can be expressed for each color by varying your pencil pressure. The only limitation is that each pencil has its own inherent value, which is what you see when you look at the lead; and it is what deter mines the maximum dark value available in that pencil.

A paper's surface also plays a critical part in the achievement of colored pencil tones. We have seen how particles of a colored pencil's lead are "filed off' by a medium-grained paper's tooth. This is desirable: it is in fact what makes the unique results of this medium possible. When working with tone, the texture and pattern of a paper or drawing surface become strong factors that must be taken into account. These surfaces are readily apparent underneath medium-to-dark tones, and similarly, a repeating or obviously patterned surface can become an unexpected and unwanted element in a drawing. On the other hand, a particular surface might be exactly what you want. So before launching out full-

Pattern And Tone Pencil

The three tones (above) were made on textured surfaces and show how a pattern is discernible through the colored pencil tone.

Colored Pencil Tonal Techniques

The three tones (above) were made on textured surfaces and show how a pattern is discernible through the colored pencil tone.

The difference between colored pencil tones achieved (left) with a tonal technique and those made with a linear technique can be seen at A and B. The following three variations of tonal technique are made using: C—a sharp pointed pencil, D—a dull pointed pencil, and E—the pencil's shaft.

Dull Pencil


Colored Pencil TechniquesColored Pencil Techniques

Colored pencil tones can be directional or non-directional. Compare the nondirectional tone at left with those at right, which are diagonal, horizontal, vertical, and "bundled." In directional tones, a slight linear quality is allowed to remain.

scale on a new or untried paper surface. it is always wise to experiment with the paper surface first and find out what effect it will have on your tonal work.


Because colored pencils are semi-opaque—what we perceive as transparent—the tones made with them are often achieved by layering, the super-imposition of one pencil color over another. This technique can result in more subtle and more complex tones.

Layering tones with combinations of pencil colors is an exciting and very efficient method of color mixing. For example, choose a particular pencil color at random and then lay down a row of six good-sized patches of tone. Then choose five additional pencil colors, also at random. Lay down a layer of color over five of the color patches, using a different pencil color for each and leaving one patch of color untouched. You are likely to be surprised at how much your constructed tonal colors differ from the unlayered one and at how many ways in which they differ. There is much to discover by experimenting with random changes.

To make your results more predictable, start again with another six patches of the same tone, this time using one of the primary or secondary hues of the spectrum. Leaving one patch unlayered. add a complementary color to a second patch, and a near-complementary to a third. To a fourth and a fifth patch add the patch color's adjacent hue on each side, and to the last patch add both these adjacents. Now compare the unlayered patch with the first two layered patches—those with complementary and near-complementary colors added—and you will find hues of lessened intensity. The three remaining patches that are layered with analogous colors will look brighter than the unlayered original, or possibly slightly subdued but no duller. Your experiments here should convince you that color is dependable.


Sometimes a colored pencil tone shows no trace of line or direction. It appears to blossom of its own volition, with delicate gradations and a look of quiet granularity. It is a tone with an air of elegance. This nondirectional kind of tone is achieved by careful pencil stroking with a fine point, and by changing the direction of these strokes so frequently that you develop no linear quality. For these changes in direction, shift your hand angle often, or shift the paper itself as needed.

However, some colored pencil tones are directional; they reveal an energetic, almost linear thrust. This effect is produced by laying the tones down in a pattern that is consistently diagonal, horizontal, or vertical. This kind of tone can also be characterized by seemingly random changes in direction, or by being organized into "bundles" suggesting a woven texture. A spirited directional tone sometimes gives way to line, resulting in a fusing of linear and tonal techniques..


The handling of edges with colored pencils—whether edges of contours or edges of neighboring colors—can be extremely expressive. In art, the edges we see are compelling elements and are probably fundamental to all our visual perceptions. How we handle our edges in drawing not only delineates shape, it imparts to our work a flavor and mood, and ultimately becomes a telling characteristic of our style.

Tonal Pencil Drawing


How colors combine can quickly be seen when they are tonally layered over one another. In the top row, six patches were made with a 943 burnt ochre. The first patch was left unchanged, and to each of the other five patches a second, randomly chosen hue was applied. These added hues are (reading from left): 916 canary yellow, 929 pink. 911 olive green, 932 violet, and 949


In the six larger patches, a 924 crimson red was applied first to the patch at left center. This patch remains unaltered. To the first patch at its right was added its complementary hue, a 910 true green; and to the right-hand patch, a near-complementary, 913 green bice. These additions of color appear to reduce the intensity of the original color.

In the bottom row, the original color's two adjacent colors were added—a 918 orange at bottom left, and a 931 purple at bottom center—and to the last patch, both adjacent colors were added. Mixing together adjacent hues will usually subdue an initial color without dulling it.


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