Australian Fine Artist

Advanced Tonal Studies

Second in the Series of Monthly Workshops with David Chen

Landscapes Using Tonal Methods

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

To recap on the previous session, remember your composition when painting and where you will paint. Your kit to paint plein air should have only what you really need. Remember to take something to get out of the weather so that you don’t get sun burnt or caught in the rain. It is also important to remember the size of the work you will be doing. Catching light before it changes is important so try not to go too big. A small oil sketch and notes can be enough to create a finished larger painting in the studio.

Also remember the different formulas for composition, such as the Golden Rule of thirds, or others that you can apply for a dramatic painting. Just because it looks one way in real life, doesn’t mean that you can’t move things around to create a better composition. what you are looking at is your inspiration, if you want a copy, take a camera. By thawed, taking your camera isn’t a bad idea if you think you will run out of time. Like your sketches and notes, the photos will add to your memory as an aid to completing a finished work.

Warm Tones

Today’s workshop was concentrating on creating a painting using warm grey tones. This does not mean that everything is in a warm grey. it means that after you have chosen a dominant colour , or colour for your painting, you use that as the basis for your work and by using complimentary colours, for example, add these to knock back all your colours to tone them down. In sense, you are creating muted warm colours from your mixes.

All these mixes, by the way, need to have at least three to five colours mixed. For my landscape of an old building, paddocks, trees and fences, I decided on a colour scheme using mixes of greens and purples. It was up to me to use what I wanted to make a painting – not a copy. I decided that the green would be my dominant colour, so a mixed up a muted dark green and warmed it up. I then began work on the sky, as it took up the most part of the scene. I mixed up muted yellows and muted purples, plus warm blue/greys to a decent size puddle, as these were going to be used in the rest of the works as well to balance it out.

The dominant colours for the work ended up being muted purples, greens, yellows and oranges with a warm hue. All colours were warm, but muted.

Remember here that you can add earth colours to mute or knock back high key colours, so use of burnt sienna, yellow ochre etc are examples you can experiment with.


See how many tones you can mix by starting off with a warm or cool darkest tonal mix and then gradually add white. You should be able to get ten, but it is possible to get a lot more subtle variations of tone. Gradually add white (titanium) to your mix and work your way down the palette in steps, taking a sample to a new puddle, adding white, mixing and then taking a sample from that and repeating. the secret to tonal painting is making sure that you use more than three colours in your first mix and then the addition of white. If you use only two colours or one, you risk the colour being chalky when you add the white and not a lighter tone.

Also remember that warm colours will make things look closer and cooler colours will look further away, so you can use this to add depth and perspective to your painting.

For my landscapes I chose a scene from the highway near where I live. It is a property that I have drawn before and pass a lot so know it well. Along with my original photo, I had a pastel sketch and memory to work with.


I decided that many things needed to be altered from the first pastel I did of this scene so using it for a tonal exercise made sense. I totally changed the palette to warm tones, and had a very limited palette of only about six colours and white. I also took out the old shed as it just wasn’t working. When we came to the critiques David put in a small white building and added more purple tones, which I really wish I had done, but didn’t think of it. He also added more variation to my fence posts and lightened up a little of the foreground. I was still worried about getting too chalky, but he reminded me that as long as a added more than two colours it wouldn’t be a problem.

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.
  7. The sky isn’t always blue, and trees are not always green. Remember to use the right tone and then you can be imaginative with colour.
  8. Mix more than three colours and when you add white, it will not go chalky.
  9. Remember that what you are looking at are shapes and colours, light, tone and planes. sometimes it is good to forget that a tree is a tree. Observe, understand and then transform into your own vision and interpretation.



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

Try five or more and keep going. Here is a starter for you:

Orange (red and yellow)
Purple (ultramarine blue and alizarin crimson)
Green (yellow and blue)
Titanium White
Ivory Black

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.

My painting today went a little further towards where I want to take my work, but still had things that required fixing. I will take these on board and consider how I can improve for next time.


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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