Tones, Forms & Planes


Tones are the essence of painting.

They're made up of three elements—Hue, Value, and Chroma.

Hue is the name of the color, eg., red, yellow, blue.

When someone describes a color, they're usually describing its hue. Some hues are exotic-sounding, like  Cadmium Red, Naples Yellow, Ultramarine Blue.

They come out of the tube full-strength and sometimes dazzling, unlike anything you'll see in the real world. You usually have to neutralize them by mixing with other colors on your palette. This might seem intimidating at first, but it's not.

Value is the degree of light or dazzling. It's one of the most important elements of realist painting. I think of values as the bones of painting.

Consider a black and white photo. It has no color but still looks pretty convincing, proving that that value is more important than color.

Chroma is the strength or neutrality of a color.

The Mediterranean sea and a faded pair of jeans are both blue. One is strong in chroma and the other is weak.

Most beginning artists use way too much chroma. You'll need to learn how to cut colors with other colors. White, black, and grey have zero chroma, so they're excellent for neutralizing stronger colors.

How these tones interact with each other is just as important as the tones themselves. Painting is all about relationships–everything is connected and nothing works by itself.Forms

Forms are, well, everything.

An egg is a form. The human head is a form. So is planet earth.

All are rounded, three-dimensional forms with weight and mass. When lit from one side, a shadow appears on the opposite side with a half-tone transition in between.

The half-tone is a bridge connecting light to shadow, and that bridge creates volume. Halftones are also the place where most of the color, detail, and beauty is.

There are forms within forms, forms on top of forms, and forms next to other forms.

Sounds confusing? It can be, so let's simplify...

Forms, Simplified

Let's use the human head as an example.

Think of the head as a giant egg. That's the large form of the head.

On the surface are smaller forms: the forehead, cheekbones, chin, nose, ears, mouth. Smaller forms on top of a big one.


Planes are the flattened sides of a form.

When you slice off one side of an egg you create a plane. We'll call it the side plane.

Other examples are a tabletop, the side of a box, or the walls in your home. 

Less obvious examples are the top of a person's hand or the side of someone's face. It's harder to tell in these examples because these planes merge with other planes in a gentle way.


Transitions are the meeting place between planes.

Some transitions are sharp, others are slow and gradual. It's helpful to think of transitions as having movement.

Transitions have this clever way of camouflaging themselves, so they can be hard to find sometimes. They tend to look like whatever they're sitting next to. I sometimes say we're a little blind to transitions.

A half-tone next to a shadow tone might look like a shadow. A half-tone next to a light tone might look like a light tone, and so on. 

Done right, transitions create volume, atmosphere, and space all at once. A skilled painter can actually increase the spaciousness of a scene by playing around with the transitions.

Just remember the interactions between tones are just as important as the tones themselves. Painting is all about relationships. 


Edges are the boundaries of a form.

You could think of them as the outlines, but let's call them edges. In fact, I'd like you to strike the word outline from your vocabulary, for reasons I'll explain later.

Like transitions, edges are hard sometimes, soft other times.

The hardness or softness of an edge depends on how much contrast there is on the other side of it, and on the nature of the form itself.

The contours of a person's hair have a soft edge. The side of a building against a midday sky is hard-edged.

A dark object on a dark background is soft-edged. A dark object on a light background is hard-edged.

High Contrast = Hard Edge
Low Contrast = Soft Edge