Reflection on linear and tonal approaches

Reflection point – Part 3: linear and tonal figure studies

I wanted to take some time to think more about the essential differences between linear and tonal figure studies, mainly because I was not sure that I fully understood the subtleties of difference before I started the two exercises.

I had spent time trying to find information on both styles prior to starting without much success. The best initial information I could find came from the ‘Artists’s handbook of materials & techniques’:

“The linear type of painting, in which the line dominates, or the tonal type, in which fields or splotches of colour dominate, or the type in which line and colour masses are combined or balanced is each best served by the proper medium …”

[ source: Mayer, R. (1991) The Artist’s handbook of materials & techniques. 5th edition. London: Faber & Faber. p153.]

When I then studied the course notes I found that the language used was confusing to me, mixing lines, outlines, tonal washes, shapes, form, tonal interest, etc. – language used across both exercise descriptions.

I decided to crack on and give both exercises a go, attempting to interpret what I now knew as best I could. The resulting studies are:

Exercise 2 - linear figure study - finished painting (click on image to enlarge)

Exercise 2 – linear figure study – finished painting (click on image to enlarge)

Exercise 3 - tonal figure study - finished painting (click on image to enlarge)

Exercise 3 – tonal figure study – finished painting (click on image to enlarge)












I had taken the decision to use the same pose for both studies to try and see if I could make any direct comparisons and observations that might help me to arrive at a better understanding of the two ‘types’.

Both exercises were painted in acrylics, using brushes for the linear study and palette knifes (in the main) for the tonal study.

So, what really distinguishes one approach from the other?

Having now carried some further research – post-painting – I have found some interesting and helpful clues.


“The association of drawing with line is deeply embedded in most people’s minds, so much so that the most common disavowal of any talent in art is the tiresome, “I can’t even draw a straight line.” If you ask someone to draw something, his or her conception of it will invariably be linear, and strictly speaking, confined to the contour. This makes sense, as lines lend themselves to quick descriptions of objects and to the swift conveyance of information about those objects. Lines separate and therefore are a tremendous tool for establishing clarity. At their most rudimentary level, they function as pictograms—as in stick figures—or as some form of hieroglyph. Raised to the highest level, as in an Ingres or Degas drawing, lines are exquisite—magnificent vehicles for form, movement, and rhythm.”

[ source:]


“But there exists side by side with the language of line the language of tone, a language based not upon lines but on the juxtaposition of relative values. It is a painterly way of drawing, of seeing in masses rather than in outlines. In tonal drawing, the eye retreats from the edges of things and sees, instead, patches of light and shade. While linear drawing favors boundaries, tonal drawing aims at dissolving these boundaries and stressing the quality of light and atmosphere that unites all objects in the visual field. It is an emotional, immediate way of seeing, closely related to vision. Within the long history of drawing, it is a more recent development, emerging out of linear drawing. But tonal drawing is a language that has a history and a lineage, and many contemporary artists find its distinctive voice captivating.”

[ source:]

How do I now interpret my two studies in the light of this information?

Well, both studies began with a contour or outline of sorts to define the posed figure in space – which I assess as necessary in the early stages of both ‘types’ of approach.

In relation to the linear figure study, to me it is clear that lines define the form of the figure, the associated items such as chair and shadows, as well as the background delineation of shapes. But there is also an element of ‘tonal’ values of colour so that the painting isn’t totally flat and does give some idea of a shape in space.

In relation to the tonal figure study, to me there appear to be a few things different:

∞ tonal gradations, although somewhat basic and even raw, are more obvious;

∞ there are some areas of negative space that do help to define the figure in space, although the kind of ‘abstract’ forms of the background are possibly a bit distracting;

∞ there is a marginal ‘dissolving of boundaries’, and a slight emphasis on ‘the quality of light and atmosphere’.

In the end, I see bits of both approaches in each of the studies – ‘… in which line and colour masses are combined or balanced …’. I think I need to try again.

Reflection point – Part 3- linear and tonal figure studies  ← click the link to download a .pdf version of this page

Stuart Brownlee – 512319

22nd March, 2014