If you’ve studied or done animation for any length of time you’ve no doubt come across some absolutely fantastic storyboards out there. Single images that tell the story at hand with elegant brilliance yet wonderful simplicity. To create such pre-production masterpieces it takes a lot of skill and a huge amount of hard work and practice, of course, but there IS something you can do right now to make sure your storyboards really pop visually.

The secret? Add simple tone.

Hardly a secret at all, really, as contrast is the number one aspect to keep in mind when creating something. Big to small, hard to soft, fast to slow. When you add in contrast, things become much more interesting.

Take a look at the image below, from our very own Ferdinand Englander’s article “Finding Ideas: A Feature Film in an Hour.”


Here we see several examples of contrast, from color on the words to size of the different text to simple shadow on the character himself. Your eyes are drawn around the page to different locations because of these contrasts. Watch what happens, then, when we remove these contrasts.

Suddenly the image has a lot less appeal, and your eyes aren’t completely sure where to look first, second, or third. The separation (contrast) is gone, and it becomes a less compelling image. (Though personally I still find the expression on the character hilarious! I’ve sure felt that feeling while brainstorming before…)

Applying Contrast and Tone Specifically to Storyboarding

Contrast is useful in all aspects of your work, but when it comes to storyboarding it shines brighter than ever. Storyboarding is all about telling a story with one image and leading the viewer’s eye to exactly what’s important. It is normally just one part of a sequence, but an essential bit that the viewer absolutely needs to see in order to fully grasp the story being told. It may linger for a split second or much longer, depending on where in the story a certain board falls.

Here then contrast through simple tone can do wonders. It can transform a line drawing with a lot going on into a simple composition that everyone knows the focus of instantly. Take a look at this amazing storyboard panel by Michael Lester who works over at Dreamworks:

There’s a HUGE amount going on in this subway car, with a large cast of characters, but thanks to tone and contrast your eyes are drawn immediately to the most important aspect (the dog in the hat) and then allowed the freedom to look over all the happy riders around him. The darker tone for the dog also plays nicely into the sad pose he’s taking. (Truth be told we could study this image all day for a treasure trove of artistic goodness, but let’s get back on topic for now.)

Behold, like a magic trick, what happens when we remove the simple tonal contrast!

Suddenly you notice a whole lot more lines than the partially filled piece. Where exactly are you supposed to look? Is the focus the large cat to the left? Perhaps the laughing character? Maybe the story is following the child to the right, off on his first subway ride? Eventually you might make note that the dog character has a nice aura of negative space (not touching any other characters) so it may be the story is about him. Without the tone, though, getting to that point takes a lot of thinking and a long time. Time storyboard artists need to keep moving along quickly.

If you’d like to see more examples of superb use of tone and contrast in storyboards, Michael’s blog Ninjerktsu does not disappoint. It’s filled with storyboard-like-comics that are as hilarious as they are beautiful. (This one about a “Cat Lady” is one of my personal favorites.)

Keep It Simple

While it helps to use tone as shadow, you don’t need to know advanced lighting techniques to add this aspect to your drawings. Simple blocking of three or four tones is enough to do the trick. Things you want to draw the eye to should have the highest level of contrast, while the areas that you’d like to fade into the background should blend in with less contrast. As an exercise, try adding in these five tones to a line drawing you’ve done (or add them to another artist’s line drawings just to practice).

Play around with changing levels of contrast, blocking in tone vs adding shadows, and drawing the viewer’s eye to different places. Feel free to be messy, you don’t have to fill in every last pixel here. It’s through experimenting like this that you’ll discover where and when to use simple tone, and just how powerful of a tool it can be.

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