Australian Fine Artist

First in the Series of Monthly Workshops with David Chen

Landscapes Using Tonal Methods

For the next five workshops with David I will be talking about how I am learning to apply tonal methods when painting landscapes.

Cameras were not readily available for students prior to digital cameras and smart phones, so they learnt painting plein air. By direct observation of their subject, the students developed very good observational skills, and developed painting techniques that allowed them to apply colour and tonal theory to create a painting, and not a mere copy that could have been photographed.

When painting on site you need to consider a few things. One is the logistics of carrying your equipment to a place that may be a fair walking distance from your car, if you can drive there. This is where a little cart or trolley can help. You may also wish to consider a box arrangement with slots in it to place paintings as you complete them. Putting them in vertically and separated from each other in a slot arrangement will help in keeping them from damage in transit but will also keep paint off you car. Try to remember the elements for yourself and take an umbrella for not only rain but hot sunlight. This will help you and the drying time for your painting. Lastly, remember that the sun keeps moving, so the light will change. Don’t assume you can do a big painting outdoors. Take smaller boards or canvasses that can be done in less than an hour, or better, 30 minutes or less. With a photo, your memory of the site and your sketches and small paintings, you can always complete a larger work in the studio. So unless you have a van and are complete sure that you can compete a larger work in an hour on site, leave that for your home or studio.


There are several rules for composition in painting and drawing. the most famous is the “Golden Section” or “Golden Rule”. This method is very old and can be traced as far back as ancient Greece. It was raised in discussion and application during the Renaissance, and again during the time of the Impressionists and Academic studies of the 1800s. Since then it has been a basic method for most artists and art students. This simple method divides your canvas into thirds vertically and horizontally. Where the lines intersect is considered to be the ideal focal points for your painting. That is where you can put your main feature. Look at some famous artworks and imagine them divided into thirds, it may be surprising how many have a focal point in one of the spots.


This is a discipline that architects and engineers know well when creating working drawing for building projects. It came into wide discussion during the Renaissance, but in fact had been used in some form or another in art for many centuries. The mathematics of how it works for paintings during the Renaissance showed artists how to make realistic works that showed the Classical architecture that was uses in many paintings as well as the depth, atmosphere and realism to life that was sought after. The most basic method is to draw a line at your eye level on the canvas. This will be your horizon line. Select a vanishing point for your building. All lines will merge to that point. The roof line, the ground level, windows, doors. For multi point perspective, you need to select a second point for the other side of the building. If you have multiple buildings you may need multiple vanishing points.

street perspective


For the first workshop we concentrated on placing trees into the landscape. Along with using perspective and observational skills, we needed to make sure that our trees looked the right size as they were placed in the background, mid and foreground. A tonal painting needs colours that are muted and that relate to each other. Decide the dominant colour for your painting and use that to dip into to influence the other colours in your work. Also to keep the colours soft try mixing several colours together not just using a couple mixed. Always add a cool to a warm mix and a warm to a cool mix to knock them back.

For my landscapes I chose a scene from the street I live on. It is a dirt road with trees and paddocks and I know it well, so along with my original photo, I had a pastel sketch and memory to work with.

Some of my colours had been worked out in the pastel, but I wasn’t happy with it yet. All the colours were not relating to each other. It didn’t have that unified look I was after. This was an opportunity to fix these and get a small oil sketch to use as a reference for a much larger painting I am planning.

To pull it together I changed to sky colours from the blues to mixes of yellows and lilacs. On the warmer side where the sunrise was, it is now warmer and it cools off slightly as you go to the opposite side of the horizon.

I used these colours again in the road and as highlights on the posts long the road. I also simplified everything with broader strokes. David suggested that adding people walking on the road in the distance would make it more interesting, which I like, as my neighbours often walk along it. He also put back in, a hint of the power lines which I had deleted. I thought they were ugly but he said that they help to add depth and only needed to be hinted at, so they wouldn’t be a distraction.

Just as we did for still life paintings in the first semester, the rules for tonal painting apply to landscapes, this was a different subject for the same principles. Being a painter who likes the Australian landscape, this was a very enjoyable workshop.

  1. Watch your contrasts. Just because it is a grey tonal painting it doesn’t mean that highlights and shadows are not necessary. Just like lost and found edges they help to give your painting texture and depth.
  2. When looking at the subject, try to forget what they actually are (EG: an tree or a hill), see them as a whole shape first and then as groups of planes rather than a single tree, a bush and a rock. Once you start simplifying the scene down to a basic shape and planes of tones it will become less intimidating.
  3. Mix your dominant colour puddle/s so that you can dip into it with all your other mixes to keep a uniform and united look to your painting. I had a light mid and dark tonal version of my dominant green today.
  4. Decide whether you are going to make your painting dominantly warm or cool and stick to it. The same with your dominant colour if you decide on soft yellows as I did, don’t change halfway through to blue.
  5. PRACTICE. As many if not most of us like to go for a drive in the country occasion, take you camera and sketch book etc with you ,and stop at any good spot you find to begin to create a reference library of photos and sketches to practice from. If you can use Photoshop, you can make several pictures from the one source with clever use of cropping and filters.
  6. Remember that cools against warms and lights against darks will help to create depth, so keep experimenting with these.



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

Try five or more and keep going. Here is another starter for you (it was one of my  darkest tree foliage colours for my landscape):

Very Dark Green
Alizarin Crimson
Prussian Blue
Golden Yellow
Yellow Ochre
Burnt Sienna

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.

I got great feedback for my painting today which is great since due to university studies I haven’t been able to paint at all for a month. I have however been thinking about what I need to do and doing a lot of drawing in spare moments.

Meanwhile below is the painting I did today, with a few marks from David to indicate where I can improve.




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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