Project Two – Exercise 2: Observing shadow using blocks of tone

The usage of tone as a basic drawing skill helps to render three-dimensional perceived objects drawn on a flat surface. According to the five-value rule of Leonardo da Vinci, one can differentiate the following five values of objects exposed to light:

  1. Highlight: direct light
  2. Half (or mid) tone: receiving direct light at an oblique angle
  3. Shadow: cur off from direct or reflected light
  4. Reflected light: Reflections from other objects
  5. Cast shadow:

(Ref: Cooke, H.L. (1974) ‘Painting Technique of the Masters’, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, p.25-29)

In this exercise of a simple composition out of two objects, I will learn how to apply various tonal values to render the forms and to obtain a three dimensional perception.

Sketchbook studies:

First I did some warming-up in my sketchbook elaborating Leonardo’s rule. This helped me to get the understanding of the tonal value range.

Stefan513593 - project2 - exercise2 - shadows and tones - sketchbook studies

Stefan513593 –  shadows and tones – sketchbook studies

I set-up my first composition with two simple shaped objects (an ink bottle and an apple) sitting on a plywood board. A single light source from left, a reflected light from a white wall at the right. I could nicely see the different values, especially the reflected light from the apple on the bottle. I did some preliminary sketches to understand better the spaces, the positions, and the values of the tones in the composition. After settling this, I continued with my drawing on bigger scale.

From the sketches I understood to be careful about the reflected light from the white wall on the right side of the bottle as well as on other reflected light areas.

Composition One:

I used large, natural white drawing paper (50 x 70 cm) as surface and charcoal. I kept the composition from my sketchbook studies and I used merely charcoal for this drawing. I started using Nitram® HB charcoal sticks, found them to hard, and changed to willow charcoal, that has a natural softness. With broad marks done with the side of the stick I marked out first the rough shapes and the edge of the underground board. Remembering my initial sketchbook studies, I put focus on placement of the reflected light areas: bottom of the objects, right side and top oblique area of the bottle.

At the end I modulated the background (brown wrinkled paper) a bit in order to give more depth and interesting marks and expression to the overall picture.

Stefan513593 - project2 - exercise2 - shadows and tones - composition one

Stefan513593 – project2 – exercise2 – shadows and tones – composition one

Overall I am satisfied with the process and final result. Although there are a few points that I will to be more careful about:

  • Curved bottle: the transition of mid-tone to shadow is a bit too abrupt, the roundness tends towards an angled perception
  • Cast shadow: this could be more differentiated with softer edges
  • Transition highlight/mid tone value: I tried to establish correct transitions, however it gave me a hard time to do so. Thus I will need to put more focus here. (The photograph of the setting doesn’t show it accurately)
  • Distance: I placed the apple a bit farer away from the bottle. What I did on purpose as I wanted to see more cast shadow between the two objects.(well I could have repositioned the objects on the board what I did not do – artistic freedom)

I achieved a final drawing with all tonal values observed and a balanced composition. Through rough markings in the drawing of the support as well as the background, I achieved more depths, agility and balance (versus the weight of the cast shadow to the right). Further this creates a more moving perception. From composition perspective it is dynamic,  as the weighted center point of the two objects together is off center tending to the right bottom. My understanding of tonal values is sharpened and therefore I wanted to do a second composition directly afterwards.

Composition Two:

I changed the objects (a lemon and a cup), but kept the support board, placed the background paper a bit closer to the objects, and used Litho chalk instead of charcoal. The reason for using Litho chalk is my experience with achieving nice blacks as well as mid-tones. This is what I wanted to improve from my previous composition one.

As I already had an understanding about the tonal values, the reflected light areas that I need to look at, I continued directly with the large scale paper. In this composition I found quite interesting the shadows of the lemon on the cup. There are actually two shadows: one cast and the other an area in the mid-tone zone of the cup. (The photograph of the setting doesn’t show it accurately).

Stefan513593 - project2 - exercise2 - shadows and tones - composition two

Stefan513593 – project2 – exercise2 – shadows and tones – composition two

Overall, I established shapes, negative space, tonal values, and support and background values similar to the previous composition. I covered the support of the objects with lighter marks than before to keep the focus more on the objects themselves.

From the learnings before I think I improved:

  • Roundness of cup with smoother transition from mid-tone to shadow
  • Mid-tone/highlight transitions: tried it differently
  • Cast shadow with softer edges

However, I saw that a few other topics need further focus and improvement:

  • Shapes: accuracy (obliqueness of cup)
  • Values: left side of lemon is tending towards shadow value

The final drawing expresses a bit more serenity than the previous one (less marking on the support, less cast shadow, tones of background are less rough). From composition perspective it is more stable, centric, as the weighted center point of the two objects together is a only bit off center and tending towards center.


Through initial sketchbook studies, understanding existing tonal values of objects, and close observation of the full set-up, I was able to establish nice drawings with a good three dimensional perception. There are still a few points to be careful about and to improve. However, I used the range of tonal values throughout the drawing. It was good to do two compositions with different areas of interest and challenge. This sharpened my observation skills. The added background in rough marks of the wrinkled paper gives the drawings an additional expression of roughness and focus back to the objects. Comparing the two compositions drawn in two different media, I can see that the charcoal drawing provides a rougher expressions, keeps the drawing more agile. The drawing in Litho chalk provides more contrasting and balanced expression. They have a different appeal. I will continue to apply my learning and experimentation with media in further sketchbook drawings and future exercises. At the end, I feel quite satisfied, the larges scale of surface helped me to get loose with enough space for free movement. I am eager to continue.

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