Screentone? The heck is that? Well, chances are you’ve already seen it and didn’t even know it.

Screentone (also know as Zip-A-Tone, Letratone, or Acetone sheets) are transparent wax adhesive sheets with very fine patterns printed on them to provide shading and value to black and white printed pieces. In comics and illustration, they were frequently used as an alternative to hatching to provide value. They were heavily adopted by manga artists in Japan (as manga is primarily printed in black and white there), but were also adopted by independent comic artists in the Western world.



The cool part about Screentone is that it can take on any shape you want. Tiny dots are the most common, as is fabric, but it’s possible to take any pattern and turn it into a Screentone pattern, and it’s still being used heavily by artists all over the world.


Sadly, while Screentone is still being manufactured in Europe and Japan, it’s not being manufactured in the United States anymore because it’s basically been supplanted by Photoshop. It’s super-easy to take a Screentone sheet, import/create it digitally, create a brush pattern out of it, and just use that for illustration/design. It doesn’t require you to apply the sheets to your original lineart and slowly carve it away with an X-Acto blade, like you’re performing surgery on your artwork. Still, Screentone has been around since 19th Century print and I feel it’s a unique part of design history, so I like to use it in my own work any chance I get.


I’ve collected original Screentone from various sources, and you can even still purchase it in the art supply section of Japanese bookstores (like Uwajimaya here in Portland), but I’ve found a method that allows me to print and make it at home. Several companies still manufacture clear adhesive sheets, either for photocopiers and Inkjet printers (the latter of which I use) you can print a Screentone pattern on as long as it fits letter-size paper.


This has allowed me to apply old-fashioned Screentone to my original works. I still use digital brushes frequently in my work though. The majority of my tones came from a Shonen manga instructional book I bought years ago, though I still scan and create my own frequently.


If you want to create your own Screentones, there’s numerous great tutorials online, or places that offer downloads for you to use. If you like, I have a three-tone set I use regularly in my own comics that you can download for free below. Just follow these instructions…

– Open files in Photoshop
– Go to “Edit”
– Click on “Define Pattern”
– Save your new pattern
– Switch to the Pattern Stamp tool
– And you’re ready to go!