Airbrushing Tonal Value - Airbrush Guru

Airbrushing Tonal Value

In this how to airbrush article we’ll touch on and practice airbrushing tonal value which is so important to creating the illusions that make a your painting surface come to life. Written by Don Johnson.

“As a density value, tone is the same as an area with a uniform density. Tones in an image reflect the variation of light and shade in the subject.”

Wow that’s a mouthful for sure; tonal value could be studied for weeks on end; here in this short how to article we will touch on the very basic’s of tonal value.

In the simplest terms you can think of tonal value as light or dark of a color regardless of its hue. Tonal value is what creates the illusion of volume and depth in your paintings; you can throw as much color in the painting as you want, without tonal value you end up with a flat looking work of art.

For this exercise, we are going to airbrush a cube and we will experiment with tonal value and practice applying color (airbrushing) to achieve different tonal values that will give our cube shape and depth. (or you can airbrush a sphere)

Materials required:

Step 1 – Apply your Frisket film to your painting surface, in my case that’s smooth Bristol board. Work all the air bubbles out of the Frisket by working from the center out to the edges.

square on airbrush paper

Step 2 – You don’t want to draw your cube directly on your painting surface as the pencil lines will be impossible to cover. Drawing your design on the masking in this case Frisket is your best option to work around that problem. I always lay my designs out on tracing paper first and than transfer the design to the masking from the tracing paper. It’s much easier to correct mistakes in my design on the tracing paper than if I drew my design on the masking material. Draw yourself a nice block or cube and transfer it to the Frisket.

transfer design

Step 3 – Transfer your cube to the Frisket using my method you simple re trace the cube on back of the tracing paper place it original side up and trace the cube once again. This transfers the cube onto the Frisket very nicely, you might need to darken the lines on the Frisket but at least the basic design is in place.

start airbrushing cube

Step 4 – With a number 11 blade and a hobby knife carefully cut all the lines in your cube. We will be starting with the darkest areas and working to the lightest on this cube. Figure from which direction your light source will be coming from and remove that section of Frisket which is covering the section on the cube that will be the darkest. In my example that’s the right section on my cube; it’s there I start applying color. Work from the darkest area of that section to the lightest. For this example I will be using red as it shows up better than black in this articles it seems.



Step 5 – With side one completed remove the next section of Frisket covering the area on the cube which will be the second darkest area of your cube, the top piece of Frisket. Start applying your color in the back corner and work your way forward in that section. Sense we are using just one color in this exercise there is not need to replace Frisket back over side one.

Step 6 – We’re on the home stretch now, remove the last piece of Frisket from the very front of your cube. This will be the lightest area as it is closest to our light source; apply your color accordingly.

Step 7 At this point your cube should look more or less like the one pictured above. Remember keep this side of the cube very light as it’s closets to our light source.

3D airbrushed cube

Finished – Remove the surrounding Frisket and there you have your finished cube.

Try doing another cube but this time do each side the same tonal value to see just how big a difference it makes. By using our color wisely and rendering darker and lighter areas on the cube, we have given the cube the illusion of both depth and volume.

If you have trouble picking out tone/value in a colored picture or view, ‘squint’ at it. I hope you found this helpful.