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Drawing on Toned Paper: 5 Tips for Beginners

A portrait study I did on grey toned paper a while ago.

Hey, fellow art enthusiasts! If you’re anything like me, you love to indulge in drawing on toned papers occasionally. I particularly enjoy doing value studies on toned papers because it allows you to focus on the structure, shadows and the highlights in a drawing while the paper takes care of those tricky mid tones for you.

From what I have experienced though, the process of drawing on a toned paper can differ slightly from the regular drawing paper. So, in this post, I share five tips that have helped me navigate this medium, and I hope you find these tips helpful in exploring toned papers for drawing too.

5. Use softer pencils to get used to the paper texture.

Toned papers often have a bit more texture, or “tooth,” which is great for different mediums. But if, like me, you prefer drawing with graphite instead of the relatively softer charcoal, the increased friction between the pencil and paper might take a bit of getting used to.

The first time I drew on a toned paper, I found it a bit awkward to work with my HB pencil which is my go-to tool for drawing. Not only did I have to exert more pressure to draw, the lack of contrast of pencil marks with the color of the paper made it harder to see my drawing clearly. The solution? I simply replaced my trusty HB with a softer 2B and I found that it glides over the toned paper efforlessly.

So whatever pencil you’re used to drawing on regular paper, be prepared to drawing with a slightly softer/darker pencil to help you transition to toned papers more easily.

4. Plan your highlights with white chalk.

For me, the most satisfying part of drawing on toned paper is creating those intense highlights with white chalk.

However, there are a couple of problems with creating highlights with white chalk that I frequently encounter. Firstly, mixing those highlights with graphite shading often ends up with a muddy texture that can be hard to get rid of. Another problem that creeps up is when you try to erase a misplaced highlight which can stain the paper with a powdery residue.

Here are some things you can do to work around these problems and ensure crisp highlights on toned papers every time:

  • Outline the structure before you start shading your drawing.
  • Plan exactly where you want to draw the highlights with the white chalk, and place those either before or after you’re done with the rest of the shading. Personally, I prefer placing the highlights last as that’s when I’m more confident about the structure of the drawing.
  • Avoid blending or layering your white highlights with shading. If you need to highlight over an area with existing pencil marks, use a kneaded eraser to lift the graphite before adding the white.
  • Be sure to try a bunch of different white chalks from different brands to see what works best for the style you’re going for as these can range from bright and chalky to faint and smooth. Personally, I love using this white charcoal pencil by Generals because I think it offers a nice balance between intensity and smoothness.

3. Be more selective in your mark-making.

When it comes to toned paper, less is often more. I think drawings created with toned paper look best when you don’t overdo the shading and allow the color of the paper to convey the midtones in your drawings.

From my experience, approaching a drawing on toned paper in this way not only enhances the aesthetics but also sharpens your ability to convey your subject’s essence with fewer lines.

2. Draw the value structure of your drawing step-by-step.

Toned paper can significantly speed up the process of shading a drawing with a degree of realism. Whether you’re using toned paper or not, a structured approach is crucial. However, planning the stages of your drawing becomes even more critical on toned paper, as it can make or break your efficiency.

Here is the six steps process I like to follow when drawing on toned paper that I find most effective:

  • Step 1: Nail down the structure. Ensure your outline is spot-on in terms of proportions, perspective, and capturing the major shapes. This way, you won’t have to revisit these in the later stages of your drawing.
  • Step 2: Block in the shadow shapes you see in your reference and apply a continuous layer of shading. Don’t worry about intricate variations within the shadows; treat them as one block.
  • Step 3: Dive into deeper shadows. This is the stage where I like to develop some of the darker shadows within the shadow shapes.
  • Step 4: Soften some values with a kneaded eraser.
  • Step 5: Create the darker midtones. Be selective and subtle here; don’t go too dark, or your midtones might overpower the lightest shadows. If you’re using graphite or charcoal, a blending stump can help you gently add values making the midtones more prominant than the shadows. Remember to utilize the color of the paper to convey most of the midtones though.
  • Step 6: Craft those gorgeous highlights with white chalk.

Here’s a nice demonstration of the drawing process on toned paper by Stephen Bauman.

1. Explore different materials.

This sketch by Paul-César Helleu is an excellent demonstration of the Trois Crayons technique done on tan toned paper.

If, like me, you’ve mostly stuck to one drawing medium like graphite, toned paper offers you the perfect opportunity to experiment with other materials. I have found toned papers to be an extremely versatile surface that is suitable for a range of dry mediums including graphite, charcoal, pastels, and color pencils, and even light applications of wet media like watercolors, markers, and ink.

Commercially available toned papers typically come in shades of tan or grey, giving you plenty of options to explore different color palettes. Personally, I’ve had great experience with Strathmore’s tan and grey toned papers, and I’m curious to try their newly launched blue toned sketchbooks too.

So there you have it, my five tips for drawing on toned paper. I hope you find these nuggets of wisdom helpful as you explore this medium. Happy drawing! ✏️