Australian Fine Artist

Dark Yellow Tonal Study

Dark Yellow Tonal Study

All Day Painting Workshop with David Chen

This workshop covering still life in oils was also the first to cover the theory of tonality using a particular colour. Tonality in painting, unlike what we may think of in photographic or print terms for graphic designers, can mean using a dominant colour in a painting. Picture a cast over most of a scene or design, it can be red, blue, green, yellow or nearly any colour, this colour dominates the painting and is used in some cases to knock back or alter the intensity of other colours so that they relate to the dominant colour. You can see this in real life in sunsets or sunrises where the light has a tint to it that affects everything in the landscape.

For our last workshop covering still life subjects as our theme, we were introduced to this theory of tonality applied to our still life subject. Our colour was yellow and we were asked to produce a light tonal painting in the morning and a dark tonal painting in the afternoon, under the supervision of our tutor, David Chen.

As with all workshops, David began with about thirty minutes of theory to help us grasp the theory behind the practical work we were about to do. This is very involved and I will do my best to cover what we learnt as it was presented.

Tonality a brief description: “Tonality is not the same as value or tone although it helps to explain value or tonal relationships. While value refers to the relative lightness or darkness of things independent of colour (as in black and white photography), tonality has to do with the way colours unify.”

If you look at the works of Monet as an example of tonality in painting in such paintings as his series of the cathedral, the lily pads and some of his landscapes you will see that he has applied different tonal effects to create atmospheric moods for the same subject.  We see the same in his hay stacks in a series where colours have been altered and unified to create mood and atmosphere. Applying tonality in our work means that we need to learn to SEE differently. We learn to paint something other than the literal scene in front of us and gain the ability to replace one colour with another to make a scene work as a painting rather than a mere copy of real life.

This process may involve replacing a cool green with a warmer one with more yellow in it for a yellow toned painting, or cooling a colour off in a painting with a dominant colour of purple or cool blue. It may mean using a cooler yellow rather than a warm one straight out of the tube. In fact much of this method requires colour mixing to make colours in a composition relate to each other.

According to David there a two main ways of using this tonality technique. They are:

  1. Keep the composition
    – and change the background colour or;
    – change the foreground colour.
  2. Change the composition
    – and keep the background colour or;
    – change the background colour

These are basic “recipes” but a good place to easily start replacing and modifying colours for a tonal effect.

Here is an exercise for you to try.

Make up a composition to paint, for example a still life, like we did. This will be a light yellow tonal painting.
When you start to decide on colours and begin painting, reduce the contrast in your colours but keep the composition.
Wherever you see a blue-green, replace it with a yellow toned green, what ever colour you have in your composition, move it towards the yellow part of the colour wheel. Lighten the tones of your lights, and lighten the tones of your darks as well.
You should end up with a light yellow tonal painting. All the colours will be warm and relate to the dominant yellow colour in the composition.

Don’t be put off if your first go doesn’t look great – mine didn’t either. This takes a lot of practice, and the light tonal methods are much harder than the mid or darker ones.

Some things to remember:

  • When working in a particular colour tone, the major colour is the “mother” or “dominant” colour.
  • Other colours, especially the highlights will contain a small amount of the “dominant” colour.
  • Having a dominant colour doesn’t mean that you don’t use other colours, however they must be subordinate.
  • The other colours may work better if they relate to the dominant colour by being closer to it on the colour wheel (EG: a redder purple instead of a blue purple for a painting with a dominant red colour)

Next time you look at a painting and wonder if it is “working” or not, have a look at how the colours relate to each other in it. You may discover that the thing that is preventing it from looking “right” to you is disunity of colour. There may be colours in the work that just don’t seem to work with each other even if the composition and rendering or “drawing” of the subject seem to be OK.

Other suggested work to look at are the paintings of many of the Australian Impressionists, who took on this method after travelling overseas to improve their painting skills.

A good site to read further about tonality is: http://painting.about.com/od/colourtheory/a/Fresia_Tonality.htm which also has diagrams to help you understand this concept better.

Happy Painting!

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