Australian Fine Artist

Third in the Series of Five Monthly Workshops with David Chen

Mixing Grey Tones and How to Make Them Better

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 (complementary colours) 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.

When mixing for a mid or grey tonal painting, how many colours can you mix together to get that mid tone? Well, a lot. It can start at as many as five and go to seven or nine. remember, you are knocking back colours to get a soft, looking through the mist effect. Just imagine you have a light fog, or the gala of sunlight as you may see it through a window, creating that effect of blurring items.

These types of paintings rely on the colours harmonising with each other. That doesn’t mean there is no contrast, it means that you use it wisely and sparingly to help create depth and edges.

Tips for mixing on the palette:

  • Decide on a dominant colour and mix a nice puddle of it on your palette
  • When deciding on colours for objects in the painting, reduce their values
  • Always try to paint warm colours against cools to help create depth



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.

Try five or more and keep going. Here is another starter for you (it was one of my background colours for my still life):

Yellow Ochre
Cobalt Blue
Light Green (a mix of lLemon Yellow, Prussian Blue, Golden Yellow, Yellow Ochre)
Burnt Sienna
Titanium White

See what colours and tones you can get from this mix, there can be a lot!


Remember that in tonal painting the use of knocked back colours and cools against lights will create perspective and depth pushing things into the background, creating space and atmosphere, we use slightly more colour (or slightly higher key and/or warmer colour) to bring foregrounds forward.

David still wants me to push my use of colour and mixing further, but it is improving. This is involved process and takes time to learn to mix paints with confidence. My thoughts are to not give up and to not be afraid of experimenting with your palette to see what you can create. The only failure is being afraid to fail.

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 workshop-dchen-4


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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