Forget Everything You Know About Line

There’s one thing and one thing alone that makes for a successful tonal drawing: seeing masses rather than outlines. Lines are for flow charts, architectural blueprints, and driving on the right side of the road. To a certain extent I am kidding—there are some incredible draftsmen who work solely or predominately with line.

Tonal drawing is all about unifying a composition with gradation--not line. Drawing by Ira Korman.
Tonal drawing is all about unifying a composition
with gradation–not line. All works by Ira Korman.

But when it comes to learning to draw tonal drawings, I’m not joking—it is an emotive, immediate way to create inspiring art. It is the painter’s way of drawing because it is all about the illusion of mass by putting contrasting values side by side.

With a tonal drawing, objects jump off the page with much more life than with a realistic drawing made with line because there is the suggestion of volume. That aspect of tonality—as opposed to line and contour—more closely reflects the way the human eye sees.

In practical terms, tonal drawing techniques also enable an artist to capture an array of interesting lighting conditions: night scenes lit by fire, moonlight, or candles. By their very nature of not having lines to demarcate forms, they allow everything within a composition to unify and become part of a whole, which is a lot more difficult to do in line drawings.

But you have to choose the right materials for the job if you want to learn how to draw a successful tonal drawing. Put down the pencil and pick up the powdered graphite, and apply it with a stump or chamois. Graphite is slightly oily and will stay where it is put, so you can work with more precision and detail.

Charcoal is an obvious choice too, though it tends to swirl around more. You can also take a piece of Bristol or hot-pressed watercolor paper and cover it with a medium tone of graphite powder, then start working into it with a kneaded eraser, removing areas of light. The harder you push, the lighter the tone will get.

Night Shift, 1999, charcoal, 17 x 24, by Ira Korman.
Night Shift, 1999, charcoal, 17 x 24,
by Ira Korman.
Overpass, 1999, charcoal drawing, 13 x 21, by Ira Korman
Overpass, 1999, charcoal, 13 x 21,
by Ira Korman.

Has this sent you spiraling with new ideas of how to work? I know it has for me. I’m thinking of creating moody drawings of figures coming out of darkness into the light, or learning to draw atmospheric landscape drawings that create a distinctive mood or feeling that trees, hills, and sky alone can’t do.

And whether you are a dedicated painter, a draftsman, or if you dabble across media, this is the kind of artistic pursuit that rewards on all fronts, and is really an essential for any artist’s evolution. It is also the kind of drawing know-how you’ll find in Journey Through Time: Strokes of Genius Collection: insights on artistic practice mixed with instruction from inspiring artists on how to make the most of those practices in your own work. Could anything be better for the artist who never wants to stop learning? Enjoy!

Related Posts:


Artist Daily Blog
Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

9 thoughts on “Forget Everything You Know About Line

  1. As always, an interesting blog, Courtney! There were some artists who were able to combine very obvious line and moody tone in the same compositions, bringing together the best of both worlds without sacrificing a sense of volume. Degas was one of those artists, for instance.

  2. This matches my ideas about line — I avoid them. My theory of painting is that you can’t paint a tree, an animal, a face, a landscape, only God can do that. As an artist, all you can do is paint the colors of the shapes of the values…only 3 things: Color, shape and value. Line doesn’t enter in. There are times when line is a very necessary decorative element. Used judiciously and carefully, line can make all the difference in lifting something up off the page, but I rarely need this.

    I do line drawings when I work in watercolor, but they are hardly more than outlines and often not quite that much. WC painters are often accused of working like a colorbook, drawing lines and filling them in. Over time, I have drawn less and less and I never outline areas of value. I’d like to think this makes my work a little more spontaneous and my values a little more exciting.

  3. I must disagree with the “put down the pencil” comment. Yes powdered graphite is a great asset to avoid line but someone proficient with a pencil can create a tonal drawing avoiding line completely, so although the tendency is there to create line with pencils, it isn’t how I use mine. Sometimes it takes a feather touch, other times just the patience to slowly lay the graphite from the pencil down in an even manner, avoiding those dreaded lines. Lines, as you mentioned do not actually occur naturally and I agree they should be avoided for the most part, but that can be achieved using pencils too.

  4. As an added note, I must say that a drawing is supposed to be an artist’s interpretation of a subject. If you are going for the total realist style, then yes avoid the dreaded line, There is a place for the line drawing and they can get the message across just as clearly. They do have a place too and shouldn’t be poo-pooed because they aren’t “realistic” enough. As I said previously, lines do not occur naturally in nature, but if that is what you want to use for your expression, then go for it, just don’t make the mistake of trying to go for the total realism and include hard lines in the work, it creates a contradiction that just doesn’t work.

  5. Courtney—

    I am surprised and disappointed at the number of absolute opinions—hard, fast statements—on the subject of drawing with tone. A lot of people are ready to make a stand in favor of full tonal rendering and initiate the complete condemnation of line as a means of drawing.

    Drawing is really a pretty simple process. It is a form of visual expression, usually by means of a dry medium, on a two dimensional surface. Beyond that, it should be an open ballgame. There are as many ways to make an excellent drawing as there are excellent artists.

    We are not helping ourselves nor are we helping the art of drawing by casting aside or condemning any method of working. As individuals, we are bound to have our personal likes and dislikes. Generally, we are people of conviction.

    As artists, we must always be slow to discourage, discard or rule-out any method of individual visual expression. We should never intentionally narrow any channel of creativity. However, we should be quick to condemn all preconceived notions of what a drawing should be or look like.

    This article and most of the comments are referring to drawings created as end products in themselves. Yet, many of the finest drawings of Western culture were not generated as finished, end products at all. A vast number of them were produced as preliminary work for larger projects. It is good to note that a lot of these master works employed line in some way.

    There is no reason to make a lengthy case for the use of line in drawing. Countless masters of our art have already done so with the eloquent testimony of their work. If any among us believes drawing with line is making outlines, it is time to review the pencil drawings of Ingres.


  6. Very well said Paul. Please don’t misunderstand my using the phrase dreaded line. It was meant in a different context. Perhaps I should have put it as “dreaded line” since it was meant as sarcasm, not literally. Like I said, line drawing definitely has it’s place as a valid and quite effective method of expression. They are a wonderful quick way to put down the shapes and as you pointed out using Ingres as an example are more often than not beautiful works in and of themselves. I just meant that if your schtick is to go for complete realism then lines often stand out glaringly against blended lights and darks, and should be used with planning and forethought when combined with such a method, but I find the idea that the line should be completely abandoned utterly absurd. Lines applied properly can create a sense of depth, shape and dimension all on their own and even my work that does not ultimately contain lines in the finished product certainly do start with them in mapping out where I will be working and the shapes, negative shapes, composition etc.