Australian Fine Artist

Advanced Tonal Studies – 4

Fifth and final 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 were challenged to complete two separate paintings. The first was to be a warm tonal painting, and the second, of possibly the same subject was to be a cool tone painting. I had a lot of reference photos from various trips and workshops we held at TAFE art camps over the past few years with me, so it was just a matter of selecting one that had a good composition and would suit both versions. I selected a scene from the Stony Point Art camp that I took last year. It has a nice trail running into the distance that I could include or delete as I wished, and a good clump of gum trees and bushland to manipulate.

Warm Tones

A warm tonal painting uses colours that are in the yellow range of your palette. This doesn’t mean all yellow, so can include greens as long as they are warm greens, blues, purples, browns etc can be included as well. As long as they are warm. Remember, colour is relative. By that I mean that how warm a colour looks depends on all the other colours around it. Wht may look like a warm colour in a mostly cool painting, will probably look cool when put into a mostly warm toned painting.

Even though the tonal colours were warm, they still had to cool off or be muted as they went into the background to give the look of distance. Tones are used for giving the effect of perspective as well as light shadow, atmosphere and form.


When you look at the scene you are going to paint, remember that you don’t have to copy every colour you see. If you are creating a tonal painting, you will have to set out a palette that will change some colours. This is the creative process of changing a scene in real life to a creative unique painting that reflects your taste as an artist.

As David has said to us many times… the sky is not blue, neither is the water in the sea or a river and trees are not green and neither is the grass. What that means is that as long as the tonal values are working, you can change nearly any colour and make it work. so why not change the colours in the sky? Or put some beautiful colours into your landscape?


Try making versions of the same scene in different tones. Try a warm tone, cool tone, complimentary tones (blue and yellow, purple and orange), split complimentary tones, monotone (just use one colour, any one that is strong enough to hold up to being toned up and down will do for impact). Remember my points from the last blog:

  1. Watch your contrasts. Just because it is a 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. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 cool tone painting (only a couple in the foreground). That was his favourite, but unusually for me, I like my warm toned work this time. Both are fairly small, under 30x40cm approx. oil on canvas.

warm tonal landscape

Warm tone.

cool tonal landscape

Cool tone.

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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