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What is tone vs color?

What is tone vs color?

Tone and color are two important concepts in art and design that are closely related but have distinct differences. Understanding the nuances between tone and color can help artists enhance their skills in working with lighting, shading, and mood in their pieces.


Tone refers to the lightness or darkness of an object, relative to a light source and other elements in a composition. It describes how light or white, or how dark or black an object is. Tones are used to convey a sense of three-dimensionality and volume. Objects facing the light source will be highlighted, while shadows will be cast on surfaces facing away from the light. Tone helps give depth and shape to forms in an artwork.

Color refers to the hue or shade of an object – red, blue, yellow, etc. It describes an object’s dominant wavelength of light. Unlike tone, color is not affected by lighting conditions. It is an inherent property of an object due to how it absorbs or reflects particular wavelengths of light. Color has a strong impact on the mood and atmosphere of an artwork.

How They Are Related

Tone and color are connected because the tone of an object is affected by its color. Darker colors like blues, greens and purples naturally have lower tones. Lighter colors like yellows, oranges and pinks have higher tones. When painting an object, its color will influence the range of tones used to depict light and shadows on its surface.

Colors also naturally contain different tones within them. Take blue for example: navy blue is very dark, while sky blue is very light. Most colors have light tints and dark shades.

In colored pencil drawing or painting, hue, value and intensity are all important. Hue refers to the color itself. Value refers to the tone – how light or dark the color is. Intensity refers to the saturation or vividness of the color. “Shading” a color means adjusting its value by adding black or white to lighten or darken its tone.

How to Use Tone

There are a few key ways artists control tone in their work:

  • Varying illumination – Objects facing towards a light source will be brighter, while shadows will be cast on surfaces facing away from the light. These highlights and shadows create tone variation.
  • Layering translucent media – Building up layers of pencil, watercolor glazes, or oil paint from light to dark progressively darkens tone.
  • Blending and gradating – Smoothly transitioning between lighter and darker areas creates gradients and blends tones.
  • Using black and white media – Graphite and charcoal naturally contain a wide range of tones from black to white.
  • Chiaroscuro – Using strong contrast between light and dark tones for dramatic lighting effects.

Artists make compositional choices about tone distribution to direct the viewer’s eye, create emphasis, and set the overall mood of an artwork. Darker tones naturally recede in space, while lighter tones come forward. Dramatic lighting draws attention to important elements.

How to Use Color

Color can be thought of in terms of three main attributes:

  • Hue – The color name, like red, green or orange.
  • Value – How light or dark the color is.
  • Saturation – How pure, intense or vivid it is.

Some key ways artists use color include:

  • Color harmony – Combining colors that have pleasing relationships, like complementary, split-complementary, or analogous colors.
  • Color temperature – Warm colors like red, orange and yellow versus cool colors like blue, green and violet.
  • Local color – Showing the actual colors of objects rather than modified colors due to lighting.
  • Expressive color – Using color symbolically or emotionally, like red for passion or love.
  • Color mixing – Blending paints on a palette to create new hues and color transitions.

Artists make intentional color choices to set a mood, create emphasis, and evoke emotion. Lively, saturated colors feel exciting, while muted, grayed colors feel somber. Warm colors advance visually, while cool colors recede.


Here is a summary comparing tone vs. color:

Tone Color
Refers to lightness or darkness Refers to hue
Describes value – how white or black something is Describes chroma – the dominant wavelength
Affected by light source and environment An inherent property of an object, not affected by light
Used to create shading and convey form Used to set mood, atmosphere, temperature
Ranges from highlights to midtones to shadows Ranges from low saturation to high saturation
Conveys depth, volume and perspective Advances or recedes objects visually

Using Tone and Color Together

Though they are distinct, tone and color work closely together. Color has an intrinsic tone, and tone is affected by the colors it describes. Some ways they interact include:

  • Colors are shaded by adding black, white or gray to adjust their tone values.
  • Lighter, higher-key colors have higher inherent tones.
  • Darker, lower-key colors have lower inherent tones.
  • Colors can be lightened by adding tints or darkened with shades.
  • Using a full tonal range creates realistic depth within each color.
  • Colors advance or recede based on their tone and saturation.

Mastering both color theory and tone gives artists complete control over the visual impact of their work. For example, a warm, bright color palette feels lively and active. A subdued, cool palette feels calmer and more soothing. Dramatic chiaroscuro lighting isolates the focal point.

Think of color as determining the subject and content of the work, while tone shapes the atmosphere and directs the viewer’s eye. They work together to create a cohesive and visually striking artwork.


In summary, tone describes the lightness or darkness of objects in art, while color refers to their hue. Tone creates the illusion of form and depth. Color sets the mood and temperature. Though distinct, they work closely together to affect how viewers perceive an artwork. Mastering both tone and color gives artists fuller command over their visual language and artistic impact.