Australian Fine Artist

Tonal Studies in Grey – 2

Second in the Series of Five Monthly Workshops with David Chen

Mixing Grey Tones and How to Make Them Better

As We discussed last month 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.

Last month I talked about how colours when used in a grey tonal paint should relate to each other. If you use a high key colour, unless you are deliberately planning something really different, it would mean  high key colour does not relate to all the other colours in the painting. For example, if you wish to put a red or pure yellow (EG: Cadmium Red or Cadmium Yellow) object in to a grey tonal painting, you would “knock back” or reduce the intensity of the red with green and the yellow with purple so that they suit or relate to the rest of the painting. How much of these complimentary colours you add will affect the resulting colour, so in many cases a tiny dab goes a long way.

So, how many colours can you mix to get beautiful tonal greys (or colours that have been toned down enough for a tonal painting). Keep in mind here that I am not talking about tones of black only. I am talking about toning down colours that if changed to a greyscale, would be in the grey areas on a greyscale. Also, a tonal painting does not have to be bland and lacking in contrast, highlights and shadows are important and have to be incorporated as well. The colours you use for them is important and need to fit in with your tonal palette.

David suggested to us that five or more colours can be mixed to created great tonal colours. Unlike a “colourist” painter, the tonal painter is not necessarily using high key colours for impact. The results are more subtle, softer in some cases but just as beautiful.

As with most other types of painting, there are methods of thinking when painting tonally. These really are common sense and begin with the artist’s imagination. It also requires observational skills which you can build up by regular drawing (anything in front of you, subject doesn’t matter as long as you practice regularly). Observing nature will also help you notice how one object relates to another, how you can use one object to gauge the proportions of others in your composition and where they fit in your painting. You will also start to notice how things close to you are sharper and brighter in colour to those further away, which will help to start on your journey to painting distance and colour perspective.



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.

Start with four or five and keep going. Here is a starter for you:

Burnt Sienna
Olive Green (Cadmium Green and some red)
Alizarin Crimson
Titanium White

This was mixed to paint a pear in my painting exercise in a lovely mid tone of yellow/green. See what colours and tones you can get from this mix.


We all observe nature and the world differently. How we interpret what we see differs. As artists we are also at different levels of skill, so our paintings will always differ from each other, even form our own as we progress in our learning.

As we progress there are certain things we always need to keep thinking about. IE: perspective, distance, proportions, variety of objects and their sizes in relation to each other, light sources, shadows and colours (EG: warms, cools, tonality). In tonal painting we use our grey tones to push backgrounds into the back, creating space and perspective, we use slightly more colour to bring foregrounds forward.

In addition I would add what David Asked of me. Don’t be afraid to add colour where you don’t see it in real life. It is a painting. Use the colour to create variety, to separate items from each other and to help to create form in objects. Push the colour by putting cools against warms, where you may not see it but where you know it will work tonally. Be bold with your brush and use it to create bold marks and brush strokes that make a more dynamic painting. Remember that in a tonal painting yellow means you may have a mix of several yellows (plus white and a dab of a complimentary like lilac or purple for example) in any given proportion, so a huge amount of variety is possible.

I will be posting more about this subject in coming weeks as I learn more myself. Tonal painting is a very under-used and underestimated method, 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.

tonal-2 tonal-1

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.

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