TUTORIAL: Screen tones with Steven Cummings


Steven Cummings is the co-creator and illustrator of the popular Image Comics series Wayward. Written by Jim Zub, Wayward follows the exploits of Rori Lane, a teenage girl lured into a supernatural mystery on the streets of Tokyo. Several years before the Wayward comic launched, the story had its inception in the pages of VENT Vol.1 – UDON’s 10th anniversary tutorial/anthology art project. The illustration Steven created for his VENT tutorial would eventually inspire the creation of the comic series, and a full color version would be used as the cover art of Wayward #1 as well as the graphic novel collection Wayward Vol.1: String Theory.

Presented below is the full tutorial Steven created for VENT, focusing on the intricate craft of manga-style screen tones.


(Originally published in VENT Vol. 1, July 2010)

I learned to tone by hand years ago when I was an exchange student living in Japan. Being too poor to afford trips around the country I instead spent all my spare time drawing since I was in love with comic books and manga in particular. The first thing I learned about toning was it is not as hard as most people seem to believe. It just requires patience and a very clean work space because toning by hand, as it turns out, is replace-your-carpets dirty.

-Steven Cummings



The first thing you need in order to tone a picture is the picture itself. For the purposes of this tutorial I have decided to go with the theme based around all the feral cats here in Japan. They are everywhere, they run in packs, and at times I can almost imagine a Jets and Sharks rumble about to go down the way one cat army will eye another one. Here is the sketch and the pre-ink pencils for my piece.


Here is the finished inked version. All the tree limbs and leaves took time and were a pain to put in there but since I am aiming for a late evening/ night theme here the black of the trees will set off nicely against what I am planning on putting in the sky.


Tutorial_Cummings_screentone_web03Tutorial_Cummings_screentone_web03bSTEP 3
Toning can get extremely dirty. Ultimately when you tone there are two basic actions you can do to the tone to get the results you are looking for; you can either cut or you can scrape. Cutting is where you use a knife (I am pretty a hardcore Olfa knife user myself. Exacto is also okay. Anything with a changeable fine tip to it will work. But nothing that you have to sharpen yourself. ) and basically cut the tone to the desired size you want. Scraping, or shaving, is when you take the tip of the knife or some part of the blade and scrape away at the surface of the tone itself, “erasing” the pattern on the tone you are working with. But the end result of all that scraping is little bits of black fuzzy tone. It is small and will get into everything; hair, carpet, and will even smear into the paper itself.

Since I know that anything I will be scraping later on will likely smear on the paper and have to be removed with an eraser I want to go ahead and put in any larger areas that first thing to avoid any potential messes later on. In case you do get some tone “smudge” on the paper at any time you can just lightly go over any darkened areas with an eraser. Be careful not to press down too hard while erasing near any small pieces of tone otherwise you are likely to pull it off the paper forcing yourself to go back and retone the affected area. I like to use the Mitsubishi Knock medium and small sized soft erasers for this chore.

Tutorial_Cummings_screentone_web04STEP 4
In order to determine the correct size of tone to place on the page simply lay the sheet of tone down on top of the picture you are working on. Tone sheets are semi transparent allowing you to see through to the art below which will help you figure out how big a piece to cut. Always give yourself some extra allowance in your cut. I like to cut wide by about 10% to make sure I always have enough. Once you have laid the cut down on your art lay a piece of copy paper (never anything with printed ink on it) and on top of that use something firm and hard to press down with to make the tone stick to the paper and get rid of any air bubbles. Always start in one corner of the piece you are toning and move straight across, then go back and move out to the sides. Like I said, you want to get rid of any bubbles because they can cause problems later on when you scan to print.

Once the tone is on the paper securely just go back with your cutting knife and trace the area you want to leave on the paper, careful to only cut the tone and not push down hard enough to cut through the paper. Once you have made a circuit of the area you want to leave tone down on just pull the excess areas off and throw it away.

Tutorial_Cummings_screentone_web05STEP 5
My next step is to go back and hit the cats in the foreground. I apply a 20% 55dpi tone and mostly cut away to give the illusion of textures and shapes on the cats. In the areas near the top of the staircase I scrape a little to add some stone textures. Like colouring, it’s important to keep your light source in mind while you go.

Tutorial_Cummings_screentone_web06STEP 6
With the cats done I now go back and put some basic tone on my girl character in the center of the image. Because the sky (top 1/3) and the cats (bottom 1/3) are done with dot tone I am going to use a “sand” pattern on my only human character to help her pop a little.

Tutorial_Cummings_screentone_web07STEP 7
I now go and lay an additional layer of darkened Gradient on top of the girl to form the basis of her shadows and to give her clothing some additional form and texture. Used the correct way I can also give her clothing a sense of movement here as well. I am only scraping here because it would take much more time to cut away all the little areas I want to highlight. With the main source of light being the vending machines behind her I keep the areas closest to them the brightest and scrape more on that side and less on the other.

Tutorial_Cummings_screentone_web08STEP 8
I now go and put some 20% 65dpi tone on the trees and some 30% 65 dpi tone on the canopy covered thing next to the vending machine. These are my base colours for my next step where I will add some textures and highlights/darkened areas.

Tutorial_Cummings_screentone_web09STEP 9
Using some additional 20% 65 dpi tone, I double up on the trees and with some 10% 65dpi I hit the vending machine. I then scrape away the areas I want to look rounded or being hit by light. There is no one way to do this kind of highlight work, but as long as you keep your light source in mind you should not have any problems creating the illusion of light and dark and shape and texture. I also put some 10% on top of the machines as a base here by just making a larger cut for the canopy covered object and getting it all at once.

Tutorial_Cummings_screentone_web10STEP 10
Now that I have my machines covered in a base tone I cut around the sodas and the edge of the glass front and remove the tone, leaving an empty area that will look bright due to all the dark tones around it. I scrape a little of the areas on the machines around the glass where some light might touch and then go back and add some 20% 65 dpi touches to the sodas to give the cans some roundness. Something to note here is that I used 55 dpi tones for the cats in the foreground and 65 dpi tones for the trees and the vending machines. A lower dpi means larger dot size whereas a higher dpi means a smaller dot size, or more dots per inch (in case you are wondering, yes that is inch. Even in Japan inches are used for measuring certain things like TV sizes or, in this case, tone).

By keeping the larger dots in the foreground and the smaller ones in the back you can help to reinforce the illusion of distance in your picture.

Tutorial_Cummings_screentone_web11STEP 11 – Final
With the tone all on and the picture all done I do one last close inspection of the finished piece looking for small cuttings that might have gotten stuck to the board by accident. They might not seem like much of a big deal close up but if left on they will stick out like a sore thumb when you scan and print.

Total time drawing the illustration: 4 hours. Total time to ink: 4 hours (trees took a lot of time). Total time spent toning: 6-8 hours.