Australian Fine Artist

Workshop Number Three of Five 2016

Tutor: David Chen

Tone in Colour

To lead people into a painting you need to alter reality. Creating lines for the eye to follow which are not literal lines, but compositional lines, helps to break up the area and create depth. Using colour perspective also leads the eye into the work by helping to create that sense of depth. These tonal values are up to you to choose. If you are painting in grey tones (not light or dark tones of colours, but mid tones), you need to knock back the intensity of most of your colours creating a muted effect. You can then add a dash of higher key colour as a focal point or to create a bit of drama.

What is Tone?

What does tone mean? What are tonal values? Before you begin to paint tonally you need to be able to answer these questions. For example, tonal values express light, form and composition. Applied to good drawing techniques tones are the degrees between light and dark. When you do a grey tonal painting you knock back or reduce the intensity of the colours and reduce the contrast in values of light and dark in areas. Colours, in this case, will be less ‘high key’. Think about these ideas:

  1. Understand tones, they describe the relationship between colours and light.
  2. Decide where to place your tonal values as a plan before you paint. Remember that a strong colour attracts attention.
  3. Remember to vary where you place colour. Placing them alternating through a painting creates movement. This also applies to light and how you place it. Look at the work of Vermeer and Rembrandt. They use strong alternating tones of light and dark against each other for very dramatic results.

TIP: Use a limited palette, a lot of colour does not mean a better painting. You can also create a huge variety of colour from only three basic colours. Try using the three primaries, or a selection of three from the colour wheel, or two primaries and a secondary or tertiary colour.

Mixing the ‘Right’ Colours with Each Other

Practice with colours will help you to see how well they react with others. As a guide see below for a few popular colours:

  • Yellow ochre is a tertiary yellow that mixes well. It creates lovely greens and can be used to tone down or mute a stronger colour such as Cadmium Red.
  • Ultramarine Blue (especially French Ultramarine) mixes very well with Alizarin Crimson to create beautiful purples.
  • Burnt Umber is a dull brown but you can use it to mix with Cobalt Blue for cool shadows and with any crimson to create a warm shadow.

To finish off a few tips from David as we stand in front of the easel ready to paint:

  • Paint less think more.
  • Decide where you are gong to put your colour, what colour you want – then paint.
  • Think about whether your colours are going to work with each other.
  • Look at the shadows are working in your painting. Not all shadows in the one work are the same as they will be reacting to the adjacent objects and the strength of the light. Strong light strong shadows, warm light cool shadows, cool light warm shadows, a red object will affect the adjacent shadow etc.

Below is my painting from this workshop. There are marks around the plate edge and on some of the dark areas of the fruit, but the rest is mine. The point of these paintings is not a completed work, but the process of learning to apply colour and make it work. You will see that even though it is a tonal painting it isn’t lacking in colour and variety in texture. Tone doesn’t mean bland or boring, it just requires some planning and forethought in planning your palette before you put brush to canvas.

d chen workshop 3

© 2016 Janice Mills. Still Life. Oil on Board. Approx. 25x30cm.

David’s workshops are in very high demand and many are booked out in advance, but you can go on to a waiting list as sometimes spaces open up. If you would like to go on the waiting list, you can contact David via his website:

Please mention you have been referred by Janice Mills.

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