Identifying tonal changes


In the first Module of our Creative Sketchbooks course, one of the activities we suggest you try is some observational drawing of cutlery. “Draw a fork?”, I hear you say. Yes! It’s a great challenge. You’ve got to think about shape, form, tone and of course, reflections.

There’s lots of information and tips within the course, including a video demonstration, but here are some extra things to think about when tackling this activity.


When you’re working with a reflective subject, the lighting of that object is vital as it will affect how that object appears. I’ve photographed my cutlery subject in artificial light and daylight. Take a look at the two images below. The one on the left was taken with artificial light, the one on the right, in bright daylight.

I would have expected the artificial light to produce harsher reflections, but no, the results are much softer than the effects of the cold winter daylight. For instance, compare the tonal values of the knife blades. In the daylight image some of the reflections are pure white, whereas in the artificial light the lighter tones are generally not so white and bright.

So lighting is important. Notice also how the photo taken in artificial light has a dark background behind the knives and forks. In the daylight photo the background is lighter. Which do you prefer? I quite like the drama of the dark background. You can always adjust the background colour in a still life set up to suit your ideals. Just place a piece of coloured paper or fabric behind your subject and see how it affects the perceived tonal value of the subject matter itself.


Drawing a highly reflective object is a difficult task! Take a look at many still life paintings throughout art history and you’ll often spot a highly polished metal object in the composition. This is the artist showing off that, yes, they can paint this tricky surface.

Careful observation of the subject is the key. So while you might think this is a drawing activity, really it’s an exercise in looking and carefully observing the object. Take a look at my example photo below. The knives and forks are smooth and shiny. We know this because they reflect the light and other objects on their surface. To capture this in your drawing you need to replicate the placement of the tonal values. Basically, get the lights and darks, and everything in between in the right place.

Finding the right tone is important. Look for the lightest areas and if they are very light, perhaps  use the whiteness of the paper for those areas. Likewise look for the darkest areas and make them dark enough when you draw. If you don’t make your darks dark enough and the lights light enough, then everything will appear too mid-tone and a bit dull. Not what you’re looking for with such a super shiny subject!


It’s not just about recording the right tonal value. To really make something look shiny it’s about how you place those tonal values next to each other. Look for instance at the knife blades. That very flat smooth surface has a gentle gradation of tone from light to dark. Compare that to the  curved backs of the forks. Notice how sudden the changes of tone occur. There are more changes from light to dark and back again and they happen without the smooth gradation. The tone changes more definitely with a hard edge, not a soft edge like on the knife blades.

So if you’re about to tackle this activity think about:

  • lighting
  • background colour/value
  • tonal values
  • tonal gradation – sudden or gradual
  • hard or soft edges

Have fun with this. We are looking forward to seeing what you do!

Love Laura