Australian Fine Artist

Next in the series of Tonal Workshops with Artist David Chen

Subject: Floral Still Life. How to paint using reds as your dominant colour. 

Understanding of tonal values gives you the ability to look at your subject and translate it into a painting where all the colours work with each other – they relate and none will look out of place against the others.

Examples of this can be seen in Monet’s paintings of his garden. Admittedly, as he was losing his sight Monet lost his ability to see colours in the blue range for several years, but even so, if you went to the exhibition of his work recently at the NGV in Melbourne, you would have noticed the constant experimentation with colour themes. Rather than painting exactly what was in front of him, Monet panted with a dominant colour theme, some are in cool blues or mauves, others are in his collection of reds and purples. In his constant endeavour to master colour, Monet collected colours on his palette to see how they worked with each other, he came up with working ideas of colour theory that gave his paintings a unified look and atmosphere to reflect the time of day or season.

Similar themes can be seen in the work of Streeton if you want an Australian example and there are many other examples from the Impressionsists of colours being selected that harmonise with each other.

Colours to work with the reds in today’s workshop were also from tertiary colours such as Van Dyke Brown, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, as well as Australian Red Gold, Cadmium Orange and Ivory Black as a mixer to knock back some of the colours. Some may be thinking now that you can’t mix black or it deadens colour, try the right black (such as Ivory or Transparent Black) and mix it carefully to tone down a high key colour such as Cadmium Red and you will get a beautiful dark rich red.

Tonal studies can allow us to decide on a palette that suits the way we paint, or the palette we want to use for a particular painting. We select a mood or atmosphere by the tonal dominant colour. that does not mean that red, in this case, is the only colour range we use, it just means that it is dominant with other colours subordinate and working with the reds. In my paintings a final touch of green was added in just a couple of spots for that final spark. The vase which was a light green was toned down with the addition of a touch of red, but still a green. Greens were still in the leaves – but again used with a red and even the blues in this area had a touch of the red added. All to make the colours work together in harmony.

In the composition of the painting, a dominant item like a flower can be selected as the focal point. Remember when painting a lot of flowers with similar patterns to them, you can change things to give variety to the shapes and prevent the wallpaper look of repeated patterns. Push the subordinate flowers back with a cooler or greyer colour and bring your dominant object forward by making it bigger and/or using a higher key colour with some sharper edges.

Remember also your shadows, I did on my second attempt for the day and had to try to get it in around the subject, which didn’t come out too well, so try to get this in as you get started and not as an afterthought like I did!

Also another thing with an Impressionist style painting is to look at the overall shapes not the details. I am constantly getting hung up on leaves and petals rather than the big picture, which in this case had a large clump of leaves which could be indicated with less and bolder brush strokes. Something I am working on. Less is more. Make the one stroke work if you can and look at the overall shape and blocks of colour rather than all the little details you may be enticed to investigate.

Workshops are for the most part not a season to complete a painting, but to participate in the process. when the object of the day is learning about making tonal values work, getting all the leaves in a still life in, is not the point, getting the colours you have selected on your palette in the right area of the colour wheel working with each other, is.

I hope this all makes sense and when you next sit down – or stand to create a new painting, you think about how you can make your selection of paints on the palette work better for a harmonious look to your artwork.

Below: Tonal studies.
Dark Tone in Reds. Light Tone in Reds.

red tonals


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