Australian Fine Artist

Advanced Tonal Studies – 3

Third 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 you can always mix colours so you don’t need a ton of tubes with you. Also remember the different formulas for composition, such as the Golden Rule of thirds just because it looks one way in real life, doesn’t mean that you can’t move things around to create a better composition.

Warm Tones

As I have been working on a larger version of a landscape I recently painted, I wanted to do a version of it for this workshop. Again we were concentrating on warm tones (warmer colours) as these seem to trip up artists the most when applying them to landscapes and natural scenes.

It may not seem natural for those of us who have learnt to paint by observation, but really if you are loosening up your style for something more impressionist or abstract, something you need to keep in mind is that trees are not always green or brown and the sky isn’t always blue.

When you decide on a temperature and palette for  your painting, get imaginative and think about where your lights and darks will go first, what colour they are is secondary. As long as they are working tonally and the composition is correct, you should be able to warm up your trees with something as unusual as red/purple. It’s amazing that once you have these colours in place, the painting will look right even if the colours are not what you would initially expect.

Keep in mind that tonally the painting needs to grey off as you go into the background. So you can mute your colours or cool them off or both to push background subjects back and help to bring you foreground forward.

Another thing to think about is making sure that you break lines. This is called lost and found edges. It helps to create movement and prevent a work from looking too static. Your foreground object should also be a bit clearer and as you work your way back you can lose detail for blocks of colour.

My dominant colours were warm red purples, yellows and oranges for my painting in this session. The opposite of the cooler version I did recently.

I actually ended up doing two paintings on the day, one of which David really liked the composition for but did a lot of work on to show me just how much I can afford to loosen up a landscape without losing the ability to tell a tree from a road! I don’t know that it is as far as I want to go with my work, but it does give an indication of things I can add to my repertoire in the future.


For an activity, try doing a different version, or even several small ones, of a painting you have done previously. Use your colour wheel to select some analogous colours from the same side of it and start changing colours of objects as you make a new version of your painting. You may want to try a red toned painting, or a purple red like I did, or an orange or yellow tone. Whilst you do so remember the hints below.

  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 and stick to it.
  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 a 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. Even in a dominantly warm painting you can apply variations of warmth.
  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. If you think you have lost your colour add a bit back into the mix to get it back.
  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.

Here are the two versions from today. The first one is all mine and the next is mostly David.



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

Please mention you have been referred by Janice Mills.

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