The ability to compose pictures is a fundamental skill for an artist to develop, and a powerful tool for creating compelling and memorable artwork. A method I’ve used to develop my own compositional skills is to study tonal composition.
This tutorial will demonstrate the tonal composition study process in detail, from principles to execution. For a summary, watch the video playlist below or continue reading for the full article.
What is a Tonal Composition Study?
Tonal Composition is the arrangement of shapes of value in a picture or scene. It’s these shapes and masses of value, or light, dark and mid-tone that we want to observe and study.
An example of tonal studies from various painters and illustrators.
Why is Tonal Composition Important?
Tonal Composition is important for many reasons. The first and most important reason relates to how tonal composition is perceived by the human eye and it’s effect on the mind of the viewer.
The mind’s first ‘read’ or judgement of an image or scene is made in value. The mind’s first instinct is to look for the shapes of value. Depending on how the shapes are designed and arranged, the mind can then ‘assemble’ the shapes into a cohesive picture.
In essence, if we want to make the most impact on the viewer and audiences, we should first strive to make compelling arrangements of value.
Theoretical model of how the human mind assembles a picture, starting with an abstract pattern of value shapes (A) to a cohesive and detailed image (D).
The second reason, is that observing and studying tonal compositions trains the artist to see in value. Since observation is the first step towards mastery of picture making, training the eye to see in value will greatly benefit the artist or student’s ability to design and execute compelling pictures.
Third, it exposes the artist to great art and great pictures. Making a habit of staring at, observing and studying great pieces of art by expert craftsmen is a great way to absorb good compositional skills and principles.
Tonal composition and eye flow study after master illustrator Howard Pyle.
What to study?
We can look to many images and subjects to study their value shapes. I personally enjoy and have learned the most from studying:
- Old master paintings
- Golden age illustrators
- Film and movie stills
The artists and craftsmen that create these compelling pictures are experts in composition. Seeking the advice of experts is a great way to succeed in any subject. This is especially true in the visual arts. Even though many great artists in history are long gone, we can still learn and absorb great knowledge from them by studying their work.
Composition study after Ilya Repin. Repin was a 19th century Russian painter who produced many powerful and compelling images. Even though Repin died in 1930, many great reproductions of his paintings are available today and we can learn so much from studying his work.
When I say ‘Old Master’ or ‘masterpiece’, the term can be vague and often confusing. In my experience, an ‘Old Master’ is any artist that is generally accepted and recognized as an expert by other expert artists and those with good taste. Yes, taste in art is mostly ‘subjective’, but I like to focus on works that other great painters I admire also recommend or study.
Here is a brief list of old master painters that I personally study and admire:
- Edgar Payne
- De La Tour
This is just a brief list. There are many great painters and composers both past and present that an artist or student can study and learn from.
Tonal composition study after Georges De La Tour.
Golden Age Illustration is another genre that I look to for tonal composition. It’s called the ‘Golden Age’ because many influential illustrators and artists emerged during this period.
The works produced by these master craftsmen are well recognized as ‘masterpieces’ or works of excellence. What I admire most about their work is their sense of composition.
Since illustration demands that pictures be compelling and eye-catching, illustrators must become experts in tonal composition to be successful in the competitive illustration market.
Here is brief list of master illustrators I admire and look to, particularly for their skill in composition:
- Dean Cornwell
- Howard Pyle
- Andrew Wyeth
- Mead Schaeffer
- Frank Frazetta
Tonal Composition study after Mead Schaeffer.
Films, movies and animation is another great source of compelling images. Similar to the demands of illustration, movie images must be compelling in order to ‘grab’ the audience and thus be commercially successful.
There are many great movies and films to look to. I personally look at any film that has excellent art direction and excellent cinematography. I especially look for films that have compelling value compositions and arrangements.
Here is a short list of films I enjoyed studying:
- Hellboy 2
- The Banquet
- Kung Fun Panda
Again, this a brief list. Start with movies you enjoy watching over and over again, or movies you feel have great art direction. If a film’s images are compelling to you, then the tonal composition has succeeded and will most likely be a good source to study or reference.
Tonal composition study after the film ‘Avatar’.
Tonal Composition Process
The first step in a tonal composition study is to make good value observations. Here is a summary of the steps:
First, squint at the picture. Squinting at the picture will minimize the detail and color information, which makes the shapes and masses of value more clear (Fig. 1b).
Next, we want to simplify the value structure, by grouping the masses of value together. For example, the mass of darks in the background are close enough in value of the hat and clothing, so these shapes can be massed or grouped together into one dark value shape (Fig. 1C).
When there is a clear separation between value shapes, or there is a clear border between two shapes, then it is a distinct value shape. For example the subject’s hand is fairly dark, but still bright enough to clearly separate from the black cloth (Fig. 1C).
Knowing when to group and when to separate shapes is the key skill we want to develop. With practice, your value observations and judgements will become more accurate and efficient.
This is just a brief summary of the value observation process. For a more detailed article and videos on ‘How to See in Value’, click the link below:
Once we make good value observations and good value judgements, we can then begin to execute our study or sketch with greater confidence and clarity. Before we execute our tonal sketch, let’s talk about materials.
For sketching I enjoy using traditional tools and materials. This is just my personal preference and the materials below are what I personally use.
1. Toned paper sketchbook
I always have a sketchbook handy and I find that toned paper makes studying value much more simple and enjoyable. This is because with toned paper, I have the ability to add white. The sketchbook pictured here is one I made by having some toned paper bound into a spiral book.
2. Ballpoint pen
I do the bulk of my drawing in ballpoint pen. It’s portable, convenient and flexible . Ballpoint can create a range of tones and marks, which simulates the feel of charcoal or pencil.
3. Sharpie marker
Sharpie’s are what I use for the big masses of dark. It dries quickly and makes a nice dark mark.
4. Gray Markers
Markers are generally what I use for the grays or mid-tones. The shades and names vary among the different marker brands. I like to use a ‘20%’ and a ‘50%’. Typically, any light gray or medium gray will work.
If you would like to read a detailed review of the various markers available, click the link below to read the article:
5. Felt tip Pens
Pens are great for dark accents and fine lines. The black ink is also very rich and produces beautiful dark lines and marks. The brands I use are Pitt’s (Faber-Castell) and Microns (Sakura).
6. White Pencil
This is my favorite sketching tool because it just plain looks cool when done well. The primary reason why I sketch on toned paper is so that I have the luxury of being able to add white on top of my drawings.
I like to use either Carbothello or Prismacolor pencil. Prismacolor is waxy and more permanent. Carbothello is pastel based and can be more easily manipulated.
7. Mars eraser
Mars eraser is the only eraser I know that can cleanly erase pastels and waxy Prismacolor marks. Kneaded erasers can work as well, but are not as effective.
Step by Step Demos
Below are some step by step demonstrations of the tonal composition study process. For these studies we will look at a 3 different examples: a painting, illustration and a film screenshot.
Example #1: Figure Painting
Our first example is a figure painting by Anders Zorn. Realist painters from the 19th Century like Zorn make excellent reference for studying value and composition.
Step 1: Value Observation
The first step is to make a good value observation. Once we squint, we can more clearly see the value shapes. In this example, the painting is clearly dominated by a big mass of a dark value. The figure groups into a big mass of mid-tone or medium value. The lightest light value is reserved for the accent of light on the figure’s legs and stomach.
Step 2: Beginning the Drawing
To begin the drawing, I like to start with the frame. When I draw the frame, I try to match the dimensions and aspect ratio of he painting because the canvas size is very important to the overall composition and design.
Once I have my picture frame, I want to place the subject into the scene. For a complex subject like a figure, I like to use the ‘envelope’ technique. Enveloping is a way of simplifying the figure into an abstract shape. With a simple shape, like this ‘diamond’, it is much easier to manage the placement of the figure and the overall size and proportions.
The goal at this stage isn’t to do a ‘finished’ drawing. The goal is to try to match the overall composition and design of the painting, especially the relationship of positive and negative space.
I also like to work relatively small and quickly. I usually keep the sketches around 2″-4″ max. As for time spent, each sketch is done in 10-15 minutes or less. Working this way helps to keep the focus on the big masses of value, instead of the small details.
Step 3: Refine the Drawing
Once my subject is placed correctly, I can refine the drawing as needed. I usually only refine the drawing in areas I know will have smaller, value shapes. In areas that will be massed in big shapes of value, I will usually ignore the drawing.
Again, it’s not about accurate drawing or small details. The goal is to describe the big masses and shapes of value.
Step 4: Reinforce the Frame
Using a sharpie marker or black marker, I reinforce the frame with a thick black border. This helps to ‘lock-in’ the composition, and introducing a pure black gives me a value to key or reference the other values in the picture.
Step 5: Mass in the Darks
I like to begin with the most obvious value shapes. In this case it’s the darkest value which dominates the entire background of the painting. Notice how I completely ignore all the background details and group everything into one big mass of dark.
Step 6: Mass in the Light Value
Once the darks are established, the next logical step is to establish the lightest lights. Now, I have the two ends of my value range established, it makes judging the mid-tone or medium value much easier.
Step 7: Mass in the Mid-tone (Medium Value)
In this example, the entire figure is massed in a mid-tone. For mid-tones I like to use gray markers. For subtle variations and gradients in mid-tone, I like to use multiple markers like a 20% and 50% gray. For darker or finer gradients, I can also shade with the ballpoint pen.
Step 8: Refine Shapes, Tones and Edges
The study is complete. Now I can refine shapes, tones and edges as needed to match the design and value structure of the painting.
Completed tonal composition study side by side with the original painting.
Example #2: Illustration
“The Good Samaritan” by Dean Cornwell. Golden Age Illustrators like Dean Cornwell consistently demonstrated compositional excellence in their work. This makes illustrators from this generation a great resource for studying tonal composition.
Step 1: Value Observation
When I squint at the painting, I can clearly see a 3 value structure. The foreground and central figure is massed in a dark value. The mid-ground and camel is grouped into a light value shape. The background masses into a mid-tone shape.
Step 2: Begin the Drawing
To begin, I try to match the dimensions of the picture frame. Then I use simple, geometric shapes to envelope or block-in the major elements of the painting. This painting has three central ‘figures’ (including the camel), so the block-in stage is really helpful for placing the subjects accurately in the composition.
Also remember to work small and quickly. I usually draw these studies less than 4″ in size and spend no more than 10-15 minutes.
Step 3: Complete the Drawing
Once the figures are placed I then refine the shapes into a recognizable figures and animal. Keep in mind, the goal is not to ‘copy’ the drawing stroke by stroke. The goal is match the design of the composition (ie. positive vs negative shapes) as best as possible.
Step 4: Mass in the Darks
In this painting the dark mass of central figures is clearly the dominant and most obvious value shape. I like to start the dark value pass by first reinforcing the frame with a thick black outline. This black outline helps me to ‘key’ or better judge how dark the dark mass is in the painting. Once the frame is established, I use a black marker to quickly cover the dark value shape.
Step 5: Mass in the Lightest Light
The next most obvious value shape is the mass of light. The ground and camel group into one big light value shape. Here I use my carbothello pencil to add white on top of the toned paper.
Step 6: Mass in the Mid-tone
The final remaining value shape is the mid-tone or medium value. The background is clearly designed as one big mass of a mid-tone. In this example, the value of the toned paper sketchbook was very close to what was needed to match the value of the painting.
Step 7: Finishing Touches
All the hard work is complete and all the major masses of value read quite nicely. Now I can have a little fun and refine the shapes and add accents of darks and mid-tone. At this stage I use either my ballpoint pen or the felt tip pen to refine the darks and mid-tones.
Comparison of the completed tonal composition study and the original painting.
Example #3: Movie Screencapture
Hellboy 2 was directed by Guillermo Del Toro and based on the comic by Mike Mignola. Del Toro is known for his visually beautiful films. Mike Mignola is a comics artist who is known for his bold, graphic style and dynamic compositions. This combination of talent and compositional skill makes the Hellboy movies great resources for studying tonal composition.
Step 1: Value Observation
When I squint at this scene, I see a mostly dark composition. This type of dark value arrangement is known as “low-key”.
The only real obvious value shape are Hellboy’s white teeth. Even though his skin and parts of the background separate from the mass of dark shadow, they are still very close in value. The soft vignette type gradient also helps to blend the dark mid-tones with the black.
If an artist were to choose to group these dark mid-tone shapes with the dark, it would be a very reasonable decision. A simple two value statement like that would also be aligned with the art style of the creator Mike Mignola who is known for his graphic, high contrast ink drawings.
Step 2: The Drawing
The design of this image is relatively simple. The background is almost entirely a mass of dark. The central figure is a boy’s face, hand and toothbrush. As long as the aspect ratio and the placement of the figure is correct, I can proceed to the next step of adding my tones with confidence.
Step 3: Mass in Darks
The value structure is obviously dominated by darks. Here I chose to separate his skin and clothing which will be addressed later as mid-tone.
Step 4: Lightest Light
The lightest shape (and the only light shape) is Hellboy’s teeth.
Step 5: Mass in Mid-tone
I call this mid-tone, but it is still a very dark value. For dark mid-tones like this I like to use either a 50% or 70% marker to quickly cover the mid-tone shapes.
Step 6: Finishing Touches
The study is complete and now I can refine my value shapes and edges. Because the smooth, vignette type gradient is so soft and subtle, I felt the edges needed some softening and blending. I also wanted to smooth out the tones in his skin.
Comparison of the finished tonal composition study and the original screenshot.
Summary and Conclusion
Composition is fundamental to making great art. Tonal composition, or the arrangement of shapes of value, is the first read, or visual impression that is made in the mind of the viewer. Because the human mind is instinctually drawn to shapes of value, tonal composition is a powerful tool to connect with and impact the audience.
When we study tonal composition, we can look to the works of the ‘Old Masters’. These are the recognized painters from past and present that demonstrate excellence in composition and picture making.
We can look to recognized painters like Rembrandt, Zorn and Sargent. We can study the composition and design from master illustrators like Dean Cornwell, Andrew Wyeth and Howard Pyle. We can even learn from art directors and cinematographers in movies, animation and film.
To execute a tonal composition study we must first make good value observations. This means learning how to observe and simplify the value structure of a painting or scene. By simplifying, or grouping value shapes we also develop our ability to see in value and make good value observations.
Once we make our observations we can proceed to draw or sketch the shapes of values. There are many techniques and methods for drawing, but as long as we hold to the principles of simplifying the value structure and grouping value shapes, our tonal composition study will be a success.
Handout reviewing tonal composition study process after a landscape painting by Edgar Payne.
If you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment below. Share your thoughts and experiences about tonal composition. If you’ve done your own tonal compositional studies, please leave a comment or email me. I would love to see the results of your work and studies.
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