Australian Fine Artist

Fourth in the Series of Monthly Workshops with David Chen

Landscapes or Still Life Using Tonal Methods

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

For this workshop we concentrated on cool tones to deepen distance and create atmospheric depth in a painting. Look at a favourite landscape painting and see what attracts you to it. Is it the colours, is it the way the artist has created atmosphere and depth, inviting you to look deeper into the painting? The correct use of colour can help te create multiple levels in a painting, from the foreground, to the mid levels (of which there can be several), to the background.

Cool Tones

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 cool off your trees with something as unusual as crimson mixed with a cool green like viridian. 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 cool greens, yellows and reds for my painting in this session. I decided on a still life as David had set up a vase, fruit and flowers for us to use. Observing from life with a good light source is essentially the same process as painting a landscape from life, but the light remains consistent, and as we were not on site, I would have had to use a photo. This is a process I am trying to avoid for these workshops, as learning to painting from life with a good tutor helps with so many aspects of learning to paint. It is especially good for learning how to observe and translate what you see into your own painting.

No matter if you are painting a landscape or still life, look at the overall shapes. By this, I mean the “big picture”. Look at the outside shape, don’t worry about all the little gaps within it. Look at the outside larger negative shapes as well. You can always fill in the smaller shapes later on, and remember you don’t have to paint them all. It is your painting.


For an activity, try doing a different version, or even several small ones, of a. still ife you have set up in front or you. Try changing the lighting, and also try changing your colours.

  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 cool 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 cool painting you can apply variations of temperature. You can also add a dab of a higher key colour for drama.
  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. Shadows will pick up on the colour of the object, so for example a red apple will have a touch of red in the shadow, a cool yellow lemon may have a yellowish tint to its shadow. this may mean that you shadow will vary across the painting, but that all adds to the movement and variety.

Here is my work from today. There are areas that David has altered on the vase and the fruit on the left hand side. I had left out one pear entirely but he thought that it could have been included, and made the white plate area larger. I couldn’t see it all that well from where I was, so didn’t do much more than an edge. David said that I could have changed that to add another plane to the foreground.


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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