Losina Art Center: Offering Art classes in San Diego since 2006



Understanding Tonal Value – Simplified Version. [Drawing from an Arrangement of Boxes Shaped as a Reclining Figure].

Fig. 1.  Old Master’s drawing.
Study by Luca Cambiaso, 1527-1585

How a seemingly disastrous situation: my model calling in sick(!) 30 minutes before the start of the class last Saturday, turned into one of the most successful classes on tonal value ever.

Imagine the surprise of my art students coming to the figure drawing class, expecting to see a live model and to discover a mattress covered with cardboard boxes, arranged to resemble a “cubistic” reclining female figure on a deep-black cloth.

As my students will tell you, I stress or mention tonal value in almost every class, I’ve taught tonal values for years, but results were always hit-or-miss. Every art student learns tonal value at their own pace – that’s what I thought based on the results I consistently saw. Some picked it up faster than others, but all took some time to finally understand it and apply it in their paintings. What surprised me about this class was how the ‘light went off’ in every student as to how important tonal value is to defining shape.


The concept of tonal value is very elusive to someone who does not see it. But once you understand it and recognize it, you can’t help but see it in all things. It is the most important of the painter’s skills: stronger than the line, stronger than the shape and stronger than the color. Master this, and regardless of how bizarre the shape, how poorly you draw or what colors you use in your palette – the painting will be impressive. Failure to express tonal value results in flat, lifeless, boring art.

Reclining figure made of boxes.





Works by students from the class.

Next week I will be covering how the Old Masters taught tonal value to their apprentices.

 Please feel free to post comments or ask any questions.