Art Lesson: Light, Shade, and Tone. In art, tone refers to the degree of lightness or darkness of an area. Tone varies from the bright white of a light source through shades of gray to the deepest black shadows. How we perceive the tone of an object depends on its actual surface lightness or darkness, color and texture, the background and lighting. Tone may be used broadly to denote the major planes of an object. Realist artists use 'local tone' to accurately denote subtle changes within the plane. Wyland explores the natural gray shades of a stingray in this illuminating lesson on light, shade, and tone.