Tools of the Trade - Toned Paper, By: Earnest Ward

The following blog featuring Toned Paper is written by Artist Earnest Ward:

Toned paper -- a faster way to sketch form and volume


On October 29, I'll be wrapping up the series of workshops I'm doing for the Fort Worth Central Library with one of my favorite sketching materials: toned paper. So, I thought it might be a good time to visit the subject with a focus on the techniques of working on toned paper.

For those of you who are new to toned paper, or who haven't worked with it for a while, a little review might be in order. First, you may recall that the majority of most tonal (i.e., volumetric) drawings is middle tone. Second, if you are working on white paper (as most of us do) you spend most of your time in any given tonal drawing getting rid of (covering up) the white of the paper. Third, if you begin with a middle toned paper most of your "toning" is already done for you. (That is, drawing on toned paper is faster than drawing on white and involves less "drudge" work.)

But, if the majority (or all) of your drawing experience has been on white paper it is easy to overwork a drawing on toned paper. So, here's a step-by-step demo in colored pencil, and a few sketching suggestions, that you might find useful.

Toned 2

First, if you usually sketch in graphite feel free to do your preliminary sketch in the same. (Just make certain that you use a light pressure.)

Toned 3

Be sure and erase any excess graphite before proceeding to the next step.

Once you have blocked in your subject lightly define the shapes with a colored pencil. (Here I'm using a Prismacolor Verithin to avoid excess pressure, which would result in getting too bold too soon.)

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This visual reminder that your paper isn't white will help avoid fall back on "habit" and overworking your drawing.

When the shapes have been established with outlines, you depart from the working practice you normally use when working on white paper. On white paper we are working from the white of the paper toward our darkest dark, passing through middle tone along the way. When working on middle tone paper we work from the tone of the paper (middle) toward BOTH our darkest darks AND our lightest lights.

So, as a "visual reminder" that the paper is middle tone, begin to identify and lightly build up those areas that are lighter than the tone of the paper. (Beginning with light pressure will allow you the luxury of making errors in color pencil that can easily be corrected with an eraser. Bold areas of white or black will usually be far more difficult to erase.)

Toned 5

Reserve an area of middle tone between areas of light and shadow, and let your lights and darks fade away toward the edges of curved forms.

Next, begin to identify those areas that are darker than the tone of the paper and, again, begin to build them up with lightly applied color pencil.

Toned 6

To create the greatest volumetric allusion place your boldest highlights and core shadows away from the form's outer edge (on the other hand, the strongest cast shadows should be against the object casting them).

Once you have established your three tonal areas (and begin to become more familiar with the tonal details of your subject) you can also begin to identify and apply your boldest highlights.

Toned 7

Don't overlook the secondary or reflected highlights -- areas (never actually white) where light reflecting off neighboring surfaces "softens" a shadow.

Identify and apply your boldest core shadows (the shadows within the shadows.)

Toned 8

Increasing the contrast along the near edge of the cast shadow (by making the edge darker and adding a bit of "highlight" just outside the cast shadow) will help place your object on an advancing/receding ground plain.

Toned 9

The arrows show where outline has been eliminated or judiciously weakened.

Finally, to maximize volume in the drawing we want to eliminate (or at least downplay) the outlines*. The easiest way to eliminate outline is to simply take the tone of the line and blend it out into the neighboring dark area. (Outlines almost always define the border between a darker and a lighter area.) Alternately (if, for example, the "darker area" is merely a middle tone and the lighter area is white) erase as much of the outline as is practical and then apply additional white to the highlighted area.

... And you're done! (See, I told you it was a faster way to sketch tonally.)

*Outlines define shape and are generally an invention of our creative imaginations. (If you don't agree, look for the actual line painted on your subject before you begin that next sketch.) Outlines are excellent at conveying 2D shape and are the fastest tool for that job. However, a dominating outline is like an exclamation point that will often compete with -- if not cancel out -- your efforts to convey 3D volume. By integrating the "tone" of the outline into your volume-building value patterns you move the exclamation point from Shape to Volume.


A few "rules" you may find useful --

  • Never blend your light and dark pencil together when drawing on middle-toned paper; this would only create a middle tone and THAT is the job of the paper. (Don't overwork your drawing.)
  • Light and dark are only found next to one another when one form overlaps another, or when one plain meets another at a sharply defined edge. In rounded forms lights and darks are separated by middle tone (i.e., the tone of the paper.)
  • Avoid placing your strongest highlights and your strongest (core) shadows at the outer edge of rounded forms; doing so will flatten out the volume.
  • Look for, and include, secondary highlights in your shadows. (Secondary highlights are ares where light is reflected of nearby surfaces and soften shadows. This, in turn, adds a sense of curving form and spacial allusion to a drawing.)
  • Light/dark contrasts will generally be weaker in the background and stronger in the foreground.
  • If you tend to be "heavy handed" or want to straighten out the lines in your hatching, try holding your pencil farther back and "underhanded" (as opposed to the way you hold it when you're writing.) This will result in less downward pressure on the pencil and a longer, straighter stroke.
  • laying the lead on its side also allows you to use the pencil in a less linear, more tonal fashion


The Toned Tan paper has a warm color that is flecked with darker red and blue fibers rather like a very up-scale version of the brown paper bags we use to wrap our school books in (although those bags never had such a seductively smooth surface to draw on!)

Mushroom on Toned 1

Mushroom cap -- w/c, pen & ink, color pencil


Mushroom on Toned 2

Mushroom - more mixed media

The paper is heavily sized and handles repeated erasures with ease. It is also receptive to a wide range of media and techniques, and even handles modestly wet watercolor washes with a minimum of buckling and no "show-through."

Mushroom on Toned 3

Pen & ink (3 plein air sketches on a humid afternoon and no buckling!)


Feather on Toned

Highlights can really sing on toned paper

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