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How To Make Better Paintings With Tones.

There’s a lot of confusion about terminology in #painting and #tone is one that gets mixed into many different descriptions. My tonal values are all wrong or the tone of the #colour should be redder, then there’s tone, #tints, and #shades! I must admit, I used the word tone for a long time, when what I was really trying to describe were #values. Even I’m confused now!


In this blog I hope to dispel the misunderstanding and give you a little information along the way. By the way, many of my students have reported at some stage or other that their painting looks #muddy. Have you ever felt the same? The term ‘mud’ is often used to describe drab colour, but that is actually tone, and therefore it gets a bad reputation. Tone is essential for balancing colour, so forget the mud, it’s not what you mix, it’s what you do with it.


A Beautiful View Of Ingleborough, Watercolour 56 x 38cm

There's lots of tone in this painting apart from some of the lights in the wall and the sky. Off-setting tones like this is paramount for achieving balance and visual cohesion.



"Forget the mud, it’s not what you mix, it’s what you do with it".

First let’s look at what tone is. Simply put, it is how #grey a colour is, it’s not how dark or light that colour is. The term for darks and lights is value and I will cover that in a separate blog. Having said that, tone and value are directly related and they interact simultaneously, so you can’t have one without the other. To make better understanding of your colour mixes though its good to be able to separate the two terms mentally. Many colours that we see are toned, especially in landscape painting, sometimes only a little and sometimes a lot. It depends on what is happening with the light.


Low light levels will generate a lot of tone, which can be described as #shade, so a colour in the shade will contain a large amount of grey. It is important when painting to maintain the identity of the original colour in a tone, so a toned green for example should be green grey, not just grey. In brighter shade only a light toning of the colour will occur (often called a tint), so the same green will contain much less grey. Some colours in your #palette, such as #Winsor #Newton permanent sap green are already ‘slightly toned’. Burnt sienna and other browns like burnt umber are toned oranges. Most colours though are #saturated, allowing the artist to tone them to any desired level.


Late Afternoon, Late Summer, Watercolour 56 x 38cm

The shadow here is toned. It's a blue-green grey, deepening in the grey the further it progresses away from the light. Where the shadow is nearest the light I made the tone brighter by increasing the saturation of the green. The tones of the trees and wall are offset by the saturation in the field.



"There are a few ways of making grey, all of which work perfectly well."

Making tones

As already described, tones depict areas out of the #light and are created by adding grey to colour. There are a few ways of making grey, all of which work perfectly well, and can be used to each individual’s approach or understanding. First let’s look at the relationship between tones and values. In simplistic terms we can make a grey that we add to colour using #black and #white. Lighter tones contain more white, and are therefore lighter in value. Darker tones contain more black, and are darker in value. To put value in context, colours can also be described in value terms, for example yellow is a light value whilst violet is a dark value, so use the word tone to describe grey, and value to describe strength.


Black and white method

The easiest method for understanding tone is to use black and white in a colour mix. The more white, the lighter the tone, which is called a tint. Equal amounts of black and white create a mid tone and more black than white creates a shade. When using watercolour, the white of the paper acts as white paint, so to lighten a tone, add black and water. Actually some black colours can be #opaque, #grainy and heavy and I find Winsor Newton’s #neutral #tint works the best when used for this method. To make a watercolour shade, use more paint than water and again add neutral tint to the colour. As mentioned previously, you must ensure you can still see the identity of the colour, otherwise your tone will look black and that will kill the painting.


Complementary colours

If you’re on top of your colour knowledge you can tone colours by mixing with their #complementary counterparts along with white, or in the case of watercolour, a complementary and water. With this method you will achieve the same results as the neutral tint approach, but with one advantage – the ability to colour shift within your tone. For example, using viridian with neutral tint will yield only green and grey. Using viridian with its opposing colour alizarin crimson will yield green, grey and red. By bringing in that second colour you can visually excite your tonal mixtures on the painting surface.


Separate complementary colours

There is always the option of mixing a grey to add to your colour. Known complementary pairs can be used that are separate to your key colour, for example ultramarine and burnt sienna make a straight grey, which you might add to your sap green to make a toned green. Once again you have the visual advantage of allowing all three colours to reveal themselves in a mix.


Palette Grey

Yep, back to mud again. Palette grey is the term I use to describe all the colour mixes that begin to merge together in your palette to form some sort of tone. You can use this with saturated colour to tone it, and the added advantage is all the colours in that grey will also be in your painting, so from a harmony perspective it makes sense.

Palette Grey

Use the natural tones that are generated in your palette as you paint. Add it to any colour to successfully tone it and keep it in harmony with your painting.


Where to use tone

Unless a colour is highly saturated you can be certain it will be toned to some degree. High saturation is seen in bright sunlight and this will affect the colour and how tones behave. In the #North of #England where I live, shadows are quite strongly toned. In #Provence, there is so much light #intensity, even shadows can be saturated colours. You have to look and gauge what you are seeing. Tones work best in contrast with saturation as they help the eye read one another successfully, so think about how and where you might use them. Good proportions to consider are to use more of one and less of the other, so lots of tone contrasted with a smaller amount of colour saturation, or a highly saturated painting with a smaller amount of tone to contrast. Without the balance, fully saturated paintings can look contrived or childlike and fully toned paintings can look dull and muddy. Now you know why that muddy painting didn’t work out! Enjoy your tones, practise painting them and use them wisely for great effect.




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Alison Hehir
Alison Hehir
Mar 20, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

A succinct explanation with enormously helpful practical advice. Thank you Paul.

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Margaret Southwood
Margaret Southwood
Mar 05, 2023

Thanks Paul, a useful explanation of achieving interesting greys and shadows.Ian S

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Gabriele Craig
Gabriele Craig
Mar 04, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you, such a useful reminder….

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Graży
Graży
Mar 04, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Superb explanation, Paul - so much to consider!

Thank you! And: I go now and celebrate my palette-mud :))

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