Tonal Studies – Not for the Faint-hearted!

Well we all love colour and detail and texture in paintings but that is all just decoration and frippery compared to the big boys of painting – the tonal masses!

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DEFINITION of a TONE (or VALUE as they say in the USA)

: A tone is the relative lightness or darkness of an object irrespective of its actual colour.

If you, at the outset of planning a painting, can boil down your subject into broad blocks of tones ranging from lights to mids to darks , then you are on to a winner.

Omit this step at your peril and you’ll be left floundering amidst a sea of colour and detail that is going nowhere and defining nothing – giving your viewer no readable pattern to enjoy…just a rectangle of visual noise.

Today I spent an enjoyable few hours explaining the power and necessity of tones to pupil and friend Jude.

Jude thrashing out her tonal study bEFOR launching into a watercolour of the same subject
Jude thrashing out her tonal study BEFORE launching into a watercolour of the same subject.

Once you establish your tonal pattern all you then need to is translate those tones into colours and you are on your  way to painting a satisfying and believable work of art. This requires attention and practice. Do not let the colours distract you – try to SQUINT your eyes and compare how light or dark they are in relation to the colour next to them.

You can achieve this by:-

1 making a simple outline of your subject

2. using only three tones to create a readable/distinguishable pattern of the elements in your subject with just 3 tones (lights – mids – and darks). This stops you fussing and getting distracted with detail at the wrong time.

3. translating those tones into similarly tones colours (using a tone finder tool is good for this – click here to make one – MAKE A TONAL SCALE

Another tack is to scan in the image you want to paint then convert it to grayscale and reduce the tones to just 3 or 4 and work from that. You will also need to keep in mind that you may change areas of tones that do not contribute to the overall INTEGRITY of the painting – this is where you use your artistic license to alter according to your taste.


I have learned the hard way over the last 23 years by reading books, watching DVD’s and experimentation.Here are some of the best books from which I have gleaned vital tonal information.

Note – In the USA they use the word “Value” instead of “Tone” – but it all boils down to the same thing.

Tony Couch – Watercolor: You Can Do It!

Steven Quiller – Color Choices

Joseph Zbukvic – Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor

Richard Scmid – Alla Prima : Everything I Kkow About  Painting

Working on tones is a way of limbering up your seeing and discriminating skills which is a major part of creating art – I hope that you will spend some time genning up on it if you feel your work lacks punch or vitality – good luck!


7 thoughts on “Tonal Studies – Not for the Faint-hearted!

  1. Just have to ask … Jude, did you ever dip your paintbrush into your (what I assume to be) your coffee cup?

    Love the simple idea of the paint chip tonal range calculator, Alison … off to the hardware store I go! Great help on your site. Thanks.

    Carole Jurack

      1. I went to Lowe’s (Home Improvement place here in the States) and their brand of paint (Valspar) offers strips of paint colors with about a 1/2 inch square in the middle of each color … how perfect is that? Don’t even need to punch my own holes and the large size should give a better view of the shade of grey. Can’t wait to try it out.

        Hope you have a good time with your log cabin painting demo!

    1. Hi Carole, I don’t think I did, but at home I do …. even a glass of wine has been enhanced by a dip of aliziron crimson, colour wise anyway! I learnt so much that afternoon, my head is still buzzing!!

  2. thank you so much Alison for a lesson that made me think and work so hard …… but was a revelation, the old saying … easy when you know how ….. you explained and demonstrated so simply and clearly that it is now firmly embedded in my wannabe water-colourist’s psyche. Bring on the garlic.! Big thanks to Tilly for sharing you and allowing me into her world … which revolves around you! 🙂 So fingers intact and brain bursting …..all the shades of grey here I come … well 3 tones to start with!!

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