A simple exercise in tonal/value work

Teaching the basics of drawing and what a simple pencil is capable of is one of the first things I like to get to grips with my first years (aged 12) at the start of the year. They are familiar with the idea of line, the setting up of an arrangement, but tonal work is often limited to shading an area in gently with a shade of grey. I want to deal with the extremes of shading, going from the whitest white to the darkest grey and everything in between that a 3B or 4B pencil can offer. I want to cover the gradations in shading and how you can achieve sensitivity in your results. Building on this I like to lead onto the modelling of form that can be achieved.


fullsizerender-7There are numerous ways of doing this, from shading in boxes, drawing cylinders and imaginary balls. The ‘how to draw’ books are full of such exercises. Technically they cover the same ground, but they hardly catch a twelve year old’s imagination and leave them with a feeling of ‘wow’ as they leave the art room.

Yesterday I had the chance to cover some of this ground when I visited a neighbouring school to lead two, two hour workshops. I decided to cover these same areas with the two classes of 23 twelve year olds.

Working with a gridded up version of one of my favourite subjects, Chuck Close I was also able to bring in a little art historical context that was completely new to the pupils. After discussing his work for a while I was able to set them loose on trying to produce high contrast fragments of a large scale group drawing.

Four hours later I had a reworking of the first Close self-portrait and his image of a young looking Philip Glass and a classes full of children wanting to photograph the result to share what they had achieved as a class working together. In terms of creativity the assignment might not be the most experimental. But as an exercise in an important technical skill it does lay a basis that can be built on later.

For a more challenging variation see:

Tonal drawing and a favourite resourch

Tonal drawing and a favourite non-Internet resource

We live in a digital age. For teachers the Internet is awash with ideas, lesson plans, didactic advice and useful resources. I also contribute to this chaotic library of material by posting to this blog. The challenge is often simply keeping some sort of order to it all, the sites, the Facebook posts, Twitter links and so on.

It is sometimes with some relief that, sitting at home, I can reach for book from my bookshelf and flick through the pages looking for the germ of an idea that could be used in one of my lessons. It was just this sort of occasion that lead me recently to pick up one of my all-time favourite books on the subject of drawing, Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis.  It is a fantastic book. It’s not aimed at any particular age group or situation but supplies a wealth of ideas that can be turned and manipulated for a variety of situations.  On page 106 is a particular favourite of mine, it involves making a tonal drawing of a face that has been distorted through the use of an irregular grid being applied to an original portrait image.


I’ve used it recently with two classes of fourteen and fifteen year olds that I teach. As far as I was concerned, the main technical aim of the assignment was to get the pupils experimenting with the full range of tones that a 2B pencil offers. They enjoy the idea of working with a portrait, although it should also be said that they are slightly intimidated by it as well. This is where Kaupelis’ idea of distortion is a bonus. It offers a degree of freedom and a step away from their own drawing having to ‘look’ like the original.

experimentaldrawingThe initial challenge of stretching and compressing the face looks initially to be quite complex. The face element that is originally framed neatly in a square box has to be stretched and distorted in order for it to occupy maybe a thin rhomboid form. I think it is fair to say that the more mathematically minded in the class seem to relish the challenge. Maybe it’s less intuitive, but perhaps that is what they often find difficult in the art room.

Once he basic deformation is in place, with particular attention paid to those crucial zones containing the eyes, nose and mouth it’s then over to the shading and tonal work. For me it is all about pushing the pupils to work to extremes of contrast, they are often reluctant to use the full range in their drawings from the darkest a pencil allows right up to the pure white of the paper.

The results of working in this way can be fantastic and it is great to observe a class at the end of a couple of lessons standing back and glowing amongst themselves in the level of achievement that they feel that they have reached! Documented here is a set of drawings produced by one of my classes this month. The following challenge is to take the same degree of accuracy and tonal work into an assignment where they work from life, instead of a two-dimensional source.

5e2540a66fbeI have in the past also used the same construction to produce a class group project where everyone produces a section of the deformed image before they are finally reassembled for a larger scale face.

Link to group project work

Incidentally, the face images that I used for both the small and the large versions are all those of Chuck Close’s ‘heads’, which offer a readymade chance to dip into a little art historical lesson element, and indeed how artists (an others) can deal with the challenges of physical disability.