What Is Tone in Art?

Every color has endless tones

Monochrome Paper Abstract
MirageC / Getty Images

In art, the term "tone" describes the quality of color. It has to do with whether a color is perceived as warm or cold, bright or dull, light or dark, and pure or "dirty." The tone of a piece of art can have a variety of effects, from setting the mood to adding emphasis.

You've most likely heard the phrase "tone it down." In art, this means to make a color (or an overall color scheme) less vibrant. Conversely, "toning it up" can mean causing colors to pop out of a piece, sometimes to a rather startling extent. Yet, tone in art goes far beyond this simple analogy.

Tone and Value in Art

"Tone" is another word for "value," which is one of the core elements in art. Sometimes we use the phrase tonal value, though shade can be used as well. No matter what you call it, they all mean the same thing: the lightness or darkness of a color.

A variety of tones is found in everything around us. The sky, for example, is not a solid shade of blue. Instead, it is an array of blue tones that form a gradient from light to dark.

Even an object that is a solid color, such as a brown leather sofa, will have tones when we paint or photograph it. In this case, the tones are created by the way light falls on the object. The shadows and highlights give it dimension, even if it is one uniform color in reality.

Global Versus Local Tone

In art, a painting may have an overall tone—we call this the "global tone." For instance, a cheery landscape may have a vibrant global tone and a gloomy one may have a dark global tone. This specific type of tone can set the mood for the piece and convey an overall message to the viewer. It is one of the tools that artists use to tell us what they want us to feel when we look at their work.

Likewise, artists also use "local tone." This is a tone that encompasses a particular area within a piece of art. For example, you might see a painting of a harbor on a stormy evening. Overall, it may have a dark global tone, but the artist may choose to add light in the area of a boat as if the clouds were clearing right above it. This area would have a localized light tone and may give the piece a romantic feel.

How to See Tone in Colors

The easiest way to envision a variation in tone is to think of different shades of gray. Going from the deepest blacks to the brightest whites, you can vary intensity through each step as you move along the grayscale. 

A black and white photograph, for instance, is nothing more than an array of tones; the most successful of these have a full range, which adds visual interest. Without the contrast between blacks and whites with various gray tones in between, the image is dull and "muddy."

When we turn our thoughts to color, the same exercise can be done. Every color can have an endless variety of tones, but it can be hard to see that because the color distracts us. To see the tonal values of colors, we can take away the hue, leaving us with only gray values.

Before computers, we had to use a series of monochromatic filters to be able to remove hue from things like paint pigments. However, it is much simpler today: Simply take a picture of an object that is a single color like a green leaf. Put this into any photo editing app and desaturate it or use a black and white filter.

The resulting image will show you the great variety of tones available in that color. You may even be surprised at how many tones you see in something you thought was monochromatic.