Australian Fine Artist

Archive for January, 2015

Tonal Studies in Grey

One Semester of Monthly Workshops with David Chen

What are grey tones and why study them?

When ever you change a colour photo or any image from colour to a greyscale or black and white image, you are creating an image made up of grey tones. Unless the image is only 100% black and 100% white, it will have tones in it. All values of colours will have an equivalent grey tone when converted.

As with other colours when painting, the colours used in a grey tonal paint should relate to each other. Using a high key colour, unless you are deliberately planning something really different, would mean that the high key colour does not relate to all the other colours in the painting. For example, if you wish to put a red object in to a grey tonal painting, you would “knock back” or reduce the intensity of the red so that it suits or relates to the rest of the painting.

Look at some of the Russian painters of the last century and see how they used grey tones. In contrast to Australia where it took a little longer for this theory to be learnt by some of our travelling artists and our landscape has more intense light and colour, the artists overseas were looking at more muted light which held more grey tones. See the works of Whistler, Bonnard and Vermeer.

One of the most popular methods of mixing greys (try to avoid a grey straight out of the tube) is by mixing the three primary colours plus Ivory Black and Titanium White. Depending on whether you want a cool, warm or neutral grey, the proportions of these colours vary.



Try getting out your paints and experimenting with mixing these colours on a clean palette, in varying proportions, to see how many greys you can get.

If you want to push yourself a bit, try using a cool blue, cool yellow and cool red for cool greys or a warm yellow, warm blue and warm red for warmer greys.


Grey tones are the hardest technique to learn. Colour in comparison is easy. Understanding how to mute your colours and hold a painting in that middle area of not bright and not dark tonally and still working with depth and contrast is difficult.

You need to remember your lost and found edges, you need to remember your light source, you also need to remember the structure or planes of all your objects. Keep your brush strokes simple and not overworked so that you can build a shape and not just lines.

In grey tones, in contrast to your normal methods of painting, where the darks will give you your lights, the lights will give you your darks. IE: your darkest dark normally in oil painting will pull our and show up your lightest lights. With this method, your lightest lights will show up your darks which are tonally much more muted than in dark tonal paintings.

This doesn’t mean that you change from working up your painting from your darks to lights as usual, it just means that the lights will be the method of showing up the intensity of your darks.

Grey tonal paintings are paintings that you build by interpretation. It is not copying nature, it is understanding your materials so that you can take what you see and turn it into your own individual interpretation and creation. This requires the understanding of how to mix colours and get the right tone. The result will be your version of light, texture, form and atmosphere.

I will be posting more about this subject in coming weeks as I learn more myself. Grey is a very under-used and underestimated colour/tone, grey tones are in some of the most famous and beautiful artworks in our galleries. Look for them on your next visit as see how the use of grey tones has linked colours, created atmosphere and been used much more that we expect.

If you would like to go on the waiting list for workshops with David Chen, you can contact him though his website at:

Please mention you have been referred by Janice Mills.