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Using Screen Tones with Copic Markers

This week’s guest tutorial is by Jackson Root, a talented illustrator in Southern California. Enjoy!

Green Dragon with Screen TonesOnce upon a time, back before there was Photoshop and the Pop Art Movement, artists needed a way to add consistent and reliable texture and tone to their images. Screen tones became widely used in the 1930s by artists in the cartooning and advertising fields as a shortcut, and became the industry standard for background tones and texture. The screen tones are made up of a matrix of dots that build up a visual tone or gradient, depending on the density and size of the dot. Today, screen tones are used both digitally and manually (traditional-style) by artists that want a particular look and texture, particularly popular in Japan among Manga artists. Used with Copic markers, screen tones can really add a lot of pop to your work and give it that polished and professional look of the comic book industry.

Screen tones are quick and easy to apply. All you’ll need is a couple of screen tone sheets, a fine cutting knife (such as an X-Acto) and a burnishing tool (I use an old flat plastic pallet knife). In this tutorial, I will demonstrate how to apply the tones and talk about two different ways that they can be used.

To begin, these are what screen tones look like when in their package. As you can see, they come in a variety of styles. They are typically backed in a waxed paper sheet, which is easily peeled back to expose the sticky side of the screen tone.

One way to use the screen tones is to cut a rough shape about the size of the area that you wish to cover with the screen tone. Sticky side down, screen tone is sticky enough to hold its place, but you won’t have to worry about it ripping the paper, it has a very low tack. Using an X-acto knife, cut away the excess area and simply peel off the unwanted tone. The screen tone sheet is very thin; you need only apply very little pressure to slice the sheet, and not your artwork! Remember to always use care with the sharp blade, and cut away from your fingers and body!

Voila! There you have a very simple application of a screen tone. In this case, I have chosen to use the tone to describe the texture and darkness of the skateboard. If you look closely, you can see the matrix of dots that make up the tone.

Now I’ll demonstrate another technique for applying the screen tone to finished artwork, which includes a soft colored pencil, like a non-photo blue.

Here we have a very simply colored artwork, in which I made sure to keep the tones on the lighter side, as I will be adding darker tones as an overlay using the screen tones.

At this point I will take a screen tone sheet, which in this case is a gradient that fades from light to dark. As the screen tone has a semi-transparent backing, I can place it above my artwork without worrying about it sticking in place (no, that’s not a bad photo, that’s the gradient of the screen tone!).

Red Dragon Screen Tone Overlay
I have placed the sheet above the artwork and will now use my colored pencil to draw the shapes that I will ultimately cut and place on the finished piece. Drawing lightly, the pencil lines will be erasable with a white vinyl eraser.

Red Dragon With Screen TonesTracing my lines with the X-acto knife and peeling away the excess, I now have a consistently toned image that fades in its tone from light (near the top) to dark (at the bottom of the tail)!

Another way to use screen tones is to add nifty texture and effects to backgrounds, which can supercharge an image and draw attention to certain areas, or away from others.

Green Dragon Screen Tone Overlay

Here I have chosen a sunburst pattern and, after peeling the waxed backing, have placed it stick-side down on the artwork. Cutting along the lines of the drawing, I simply peel away the excess areas, rub the screen tone into place, and presto! Instant impact!

Green Dragon with Screen Tones
I encourage you to pick up a couple of screen tones and experiment using them with Copic markers! Here’s a tip: You can use Copic markers on top of the screen tones for interesting transparent color overlays or overlap the tones for added texture and effects. Hope you enjoyed this bit of how-to. Now be careful with those X-Acto knives, and have fun!

Find Jackson on the web:
Web Site:
Copic Color:

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