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Shades and tones

January 17, 2010

When we first learn to draw, we all tend to do the same thing. Create clear, defined outlines around everything, and then fill in the shapes with colour. For many, that is as far as it gets. For those who develop their skills further this begins to become unsatisfactory for representing the real world. People, animals, buildings, objects; they are not surrounded by thick black lines, divided into discrete forms.

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We learn colour, tone, shade. Objects are given shape and form by the interplay of light and dark, colours and tones.

I recently drew a picture that contained no lines, no sketching. I created the forms and shapes tonally, entirely from shadows and light.

It was through suggesting the shapes, rather than outlining them, that a truly realistic image was created.

So too with writing. We all know the phrase “show, don’t tell.” Telling is the thick black outline. It does the job, but it is unnatural, unrealistic. Showing is the shadow and light, the subtle tones that build up an image of an object as it really is, that provide realism to a story.

And as with drawing it is a difficult technique to pick up, it requires constant practice, experimentation. But when you get it right, your story will outshine your earlier efforts, just as your drawings will improve.

Chekov said it best: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  1. January 17, 2010 3:54 am

    fantastic post Paul.. exactly what I was round about trying to spit out – but never quite got there with mine……

  2. January 24, 2010 3:47 am

    I’ve just been teaching this topic in a creative writing workshop that I run – I never thought of explaining the concept this way, visually. Thanks – I will direct the participants to this post, I think.


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