Australian Fine Artist

Colour, Tone and Composition

Tutor: David Chen

Value Contrast: Colour in Composition

When most artists think of composition they think about where they place objects in a painting or drawing. Once you arrange your objects however, there is more to consider. The values and their contrasts compared to each other will also help to create relationships within a painting, so you need to decide the values of dark to light and warm to cool colours.

When you are working out the arrangement of objects in a painting you also need to start thinking about how these colours will look, as far as what colours they are, how that colour relates to the objects near it, and the tonal values of all these colours. This means that you do not spread the one colour all over the painting and expect it to work, and a lot of thinking and planning goes into a successful arrangement.

To prevent a work looking ‘disunited’ or unbalanced, or flat, these things need to be worked out at the same time you decide where each item is to go in your painting. You as the artist decide how your work will eventually look. You do not need to slavishly copy nature – we have cameras for recording things as they are, it is your job, and delight, to interpret what you see, and move, delete, rearrange and colour correct to create your own vision.

Checking Values

If you are not sure that you understand how to work out tonal values, try starting with a single colour. A warm brown like Van Dyke brown can be used to draw in your image and then thinned out to create  shadows and mid tones, many traditional portrait artists still work this way, creating beautiful under-paintings before proceeding to applying colour on the top.

If you are working with colour, take a photo and change it to black and white or use a ‘red guide’ (a red piece of plastic or acrylic that removes colour, to look through – available at most art shops). This will tell you if your colour tones are working or not. Certain colours will come out as black or nearly black and others will look grey or white. It may surprise you what happens to certain colours.

Grey Tones

Learn to use grey tones to harmonise your work. This doesn’t mean literally using grey or black, but is done by creating harmonious mid tones by mixing your dominant colour in with others to create soft mid tones. It can also be achieved by mixing your colour with its opposite on the colour wheel and then adding white. Try purple and orange then a touch of white.

This was a one-off workshop that I was invited to attend so I had my choice of subjects to work on. As I am working on my university project at present I decided to work on a landscape view in my local area, so that I can continue experimenting with it for my assessment. I have included it below. You will note I have several red arrows in the scan, these are areas that David altered to help me to take my work to the next level.

I was unhappy with my painting as it looked ‘flat’ it needed something and I wasn’t quite sure what. That is when I stopped and consulted regarding what these final touches needed to be. Lack of practice is why this happened for me, which is why it is so important that you keep at it as much as you can, as it is too easy to fall back into bad habits or to forget what you need to do to take your work from OK to something you are  proud of.

Below see where David added touches of blue to branches, red and pink marks to the tree trunk, extra hints of boats in the background, hints of boats and a fence in the mid area and directional lines leading from the trees to the mid area. All directional lines or textural marks that create an interesting painting with depth.

chen-landscape tonal workshop

© 2016 Janice Mills. Landscape. 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: