What Is Tone in Art?

Every color has endless tones

Monochrome Paper Abstract
MirageC / Getty Images

Tone is a 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 do a variety of things, 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 cause 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 name for value, which is one of the 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 leather sofa, will have tones when we paint or photograph it. In this case, the tones are created by the light falling on the object. The shadows and highlights give it dimension, even if it is one uniform color in reality.

Global vs. Local Tone

In art, a painting may have an overall tone and we call this the "global tone." A cheery landscape may have a very vibrant tone and a gloomy one may have a very dark tone. The global tone can set the mood for the piece and convey a 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 very dark 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 the intensity in steps 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 is 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 such as 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.