The importance of tonal values by Alan Bickley

Cowbar Nab from the Harbour, Staithes, oil on canvas board (40 x 50cm)


I’m probably just as guilty as many of us at times, by not giving enough importance to tonal values in our paintings. These tones can be used to help create a focal point within our work, thereby creating impact as well as some degree of balance. I’m not talking about aerial perspective here, but this is also important, and combining both together they help to achieve a three-dimensional visual effect.

To put this in simple terms, for a painting to be a success, your tonal values must be right, that’s why starting off any painting using just tone and forgetting about colour at this initial stage, will bring its rewards.

I had been given a series of recent photographs of Staithes as a reference, so a good starting point. I quickly sketched out a composition which I thought had potential, using Indian ink and wash, plus a touch of white gouache on tinted Ingres paper, and quickly established my main tonal areas. I was striving to come up with a composition which had strong tonal contrasts, so that I could clearly highlight the point of my feature.

Stage 1

I’ve used white and black for my demonstration, plus a limited range of just 4 values. I rarely use black straight from the tube and here I have made my own black using a mix of Ultramarine, Alizarin Crimson and Viridian. There are so many ways to mix your own black, this is just one of them.

I like to leave some of my greys to show through, too strong or too many colours are not always a good thing in many paintings. The eye needs neutral shades to settle on, and too vast an array of colours can be a distraction, overpowering almost, and may ruin an otherwise promising work.

For my first stage I covered the canvas board with a turpsy wash of mid-grey, and then drew out with a brush the main structure in a darker shade. Working up and down my grey scale I then started blocking in some of the extreme tones, standing back occasionally to check that I had the balance right. When I was happy with these, I filled in the lower value tones, white of course being used as the highlight. Working this way does mean that the paint needs to dry off a bit between sessions. As I work on several paintings at a time, this is not an issue for me.

Stage 2

The next few stages will show subtle additions of tone and hue being added, so I have kept the text quite brief, the photographs tell the story so much better than words.

I’ve continued to keep the same tonal values where necessary, and concentrated on what will be the main focal point of the painting, which is the rock itself. It’s important to use warm colours as a contrast to cool, but not necessarily across the whole composition, small passages work better. Some stronger colour was scrubbed into the beach and shadow areas, and a spot of white on the yacht on the horizon helped to balance the composition. Sometimes it’s the smallest details like this that can determine the success of a work, not always the major structures. For balance and interest, the two small boats were dropped in on the beach area, a sensible addition I think!

Stage 3

A touch more work on the rock structure, adding even more warmth to it, then some heavy colour to the sea, dragging some of that same colour onto the beach, as always, leaving portions of the previous colour to show through in places. The introduction of that same warm rock colour was also loosely dragged onto the beach. It’s important to achieve a sense of harmony in your work, that’s why I rarely use a single isolated colour unless it’s as a highlight, overall harmony and balance is the key! A much stronger reflection on the water from the edge of the rock gave some solidity and strength to the piece.

I went ahead and strengthened the houses and wall structure, these are the two important key areas which will give me the tonal contrast that I set out to achieve. Finally, a warmish layer of colour was spread over the sky area. In most cases, I will generally drop the sky in at this later stage, it’s how I prefer to work, rarely at the start of a painting.

Stage 4

A touch of cooler colour to the rock face with a dry brush helped to break up that large surface. Be careful not to start adding detail to objects at this distance. It’s so easy to ruin everything, strata lines and so on will not look right. I’ve also broken up the solid rock edge slightly with a lighter tone. I don’t want it as dark as the houses and wall - aerial perspective is so important!

As in the last stage, more strengthening of colour on the sea, the reflection, and to the left of the wall, a few sparkles on the water, and established the yacht’s again (I added a group which looked more interesting). These had been obliterated when I dropped in the sky, it wasn’t worth cutting the sky round them. As earlier, another layer was added to the sky.

Stage 5

Now to pull the whole image together, putting as much of my own personal style into it as necessary. A lot more work was done to the sky, the addition of a few clouds helped, leaving some previous colour to show through as before, but also adding a touch of pink which I borrowed from the rock. This same colour was again scrubbed into a few areas including the beach.

I did toy with the idea of adding some detail to the houses, such as windows, but quickly realised that this would detract from the focal point and was unnecessary. Again, purely for interest, I dropped in the little red sail, added a few figures, the railings and touched up some of the highlight’s here and there.

This is how I choose to work! Many of you may not be familiar with this method of building up a painting in layers, perhaps preferring to complete your painting in isolated sections. I don’t like working in that manner, preferring to build up areas accross the whole painting as I progress.

Looking at the completed work, I was reasonably happy with how it ended up. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate not only how I approach a painting from scratch, but that I have achieved what I set out to do, namely, to highlight the importance of tonal balance.

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