Category Archives: Part 1 – What paint can do

1.3.2 Tonal study on dark ground

Final stage – A3 painting on a dark ground


I prepared two grounds, one midtone (ultramarine, white and a hint of cad red) and one dark (same colours plus black). Before doing the painting on a dark ground I wanted to see what the process would be like starting with a midtone support. Broadly, I worked down to the darks using blue/black mixtures, and up to the highlights using blue with varying proportions of white, ending by adding extreme highlights and darks with pure white and almost-black.

I did find the process was easier to get into, and got me off to a head start by having a mid-tone established from the outset, which I could use as a reference point.


Painting on a mid tone ground


Moving on to painting on a dark coloured ground, I spent a long time setting up a new arrangement inside a box lined with a dark blue sheet, with a single light raking the composition from close by to the right. It was quite exciting to see colour and black & white photos of my Heath Robinson setup, and to realise I’d got a potential Caravaggio! The contrasts of light in my arrangement are extreme, bold, and dramatic.

132.JPG   132.JPG

I sketched the composition on my dark ground in grey pastel then sat down to examine the tones in my arrangement and in the photos.

  • The darkest darks are the background, inside of bowl on the right, and top of bottles, left three quarters of front orange.
  • Lightest lights are right side of bottles, bowl and oranges.
  • lights on oranges are as light as the white objects!
  • Front orange is nearly all black. Back orange is mostly midtone.
  • Shadow sides of objects meld into background.
  • Underside of pestle has reflected light from inside the bowl.
  • White bowl and bottles have strong reflected light from oranges.
  • Back orange has reflected light from the bowl
  • The photo simplifies complex light and shade patterns. Eg just a few main light variations appear on the dark ble cloth; and highlight spots on shiny objects disappear.

I decided to approach this painting by setting out a limited number of colours – ultramarine, burnt umber, cadmium yellow and Crimson plus black and white – and trying to reproduce as nearly as possible the colours I could see. Having roughly modelled the first bottle it occurred to me that it might have been better if, before doing the outline drawing, I had added another layer to the background, describing the subtle texture and detail of the dark cloth, then painted the objects over it (this would also have made the ground less absorbent). Lesson learned for next time – plan the stages of the painting.

132.JPGIn progress

In the end, I enjoyed creating the background as the final stage in my painting. I lightened it considerably on the right side, creating a juxtaposition of complementary colours in the blues and orange. The folds of the fabric were created quite simply, as by now, after painting the graded tones of the objects, I’d improved my blending technique. The left side is as dark as the original underpainting, although I did add a bit of dark blue. The dark sides of the objects disappear into the shadows.

The front bottle is painted in warm tones to reflect the light from the oranges; the bottle behind has cool blue tones as its in the shade and picking up reflections from the blue sheet.

How I could exploit this effect in future paintings

My painting hasn’t turned out as extremely contrasty as a Caravaggio, but painting in this way has placed my arrangement as though in a spotlight, and it certainly helped give a stronger illusion of volume. The effect could be exploited in future paintings when I want to show strong contrasts and really highlight my subject and the illusion of depth dramatically.

If I wanted to throw the spotlight on individual parts of my composition, as in Rembrandt’s Night Watch, I could use extreme chiaroscuro for this – and let other parts of the composition sink into the shade. I’d also consider using extreme compositional chiaroscuro where the action or events in my painting are intrinsically dramatic, as in Rembrandt’s The Blinding of Samson – where the characters in the story are lit individually to display their part in it.

I probably won’t be painting interior scenes lit by candlelight or the light from the baby Jesus, but the effect could be exploited in an interior lit by firelight or the light from TV and other screens; This image by Banksy is an example.


and there can be other modern scenes, such as Henry Moore’s Pink and Green sleepers, where chiaroscuro can be apt.

Comparing my tonal studies:

I found painting on a dark support the easiest in modelling light and rendering tonal values. This was partly because by then I had more confidence and experience in using the media. But it was also the case that I’d lit my subject so strongly and created large pools of darkness, which corresponded to the dark support. The mid tone support also made it easier to render tonal values but for a different reason. Here, I had a mid tone established from the outset as a departure point from which darks and lights were added. The White support was the most labour intensive, as the whole surface had to be covered one way or another, except for the tiny points of highlights in the shiny objects. This meant that there was more possibility for error in judging relative tones. 

The effect of transparent washes does appeal to me however, and of all my studies I think the transparently painted study on a white support has the best sense of gleaming light coming through. 

Technical difficulties I encountered and my efforts to resolve them:

  • Opaque and transparent – I began by using opaque paint to model the objects, adding a touch of white to the colours – without this, I found my colours were affected by the dark ground showing through. Transparent glazing was superimposed to modify the oranges after I’d modelled them with opaque paint – I discovered this was a wonderful technique to subtly alter colours and tones, and to achieve a unifying effect.
  • Precise colour mixing I learned that patience, practise and time are needed to produce exact colours. A tiny spatula was used to pick up paint, and kept clean with a paper towel, thus keeping the pallete colours pure. My approach to colour mixing has been rather crude and slapdash so far – a good lesson in this video:
  • Blending the paint to achieve subtle gradations was a challenge. I experimented with blending the paint with synthetic and hog brushes, used wet and dry, scrubbed with the brushes and a rag and rubbed with my fingers. Synthetic brush gives smooth blending with no brush marks; bristle leaves brush marks and more texture, and can push the paint along more easily. A clean, very slightly damp flat bristle brush blended edges well, as did a dryish synthetic filbert used on its side, lightly blending back and forth. Excess paint wiped off the brush onto a rag or paper towel kept to one side of the support. This video gave me some good techniques to try, and helped greatly:
  • Softening edges is a skill akin to blending, but harder to achieve. I did it by dragging the flat of a damp brush along the edge, and succeeded some of the time. Practice will improve!
  • Keeping the paint workable. Both pallete and the support were sprayed frequently with fine mist of water to keep the paint from drying as I worked. I did some research on you tube and found a method of keeping unused paint on my pallete moist and usable after a couple of days.
  • Support – I found the acrylic primed canvas, taped to a board, quite good to work with, so will probably go back and buy up a few more pads.


An Introduction to Acrylics, Ray Smith, pub Dorling Kindersley, 1993

Rembrandt by Michael Bockemühl, pub Taschen 2007 accessed 15/3/2015

the, accessed 15/3/2015


1.3.1 Tonal study on white ground

Weighing up tonal variation by eye is quite difficult to do; preconceptions interfere with the analysis of what you are seeing. I naturally observe and think about colours, not tones. Squinting hard removes colour from view, and you suddenly realise the light side of an orange is lighter than the white surface it’s placed on!  A digital photo of the arrangement displayed in black and white let me study tones at leisure, without straining to squint for long periods.

I used this exercise to practise rendering form, and also to continue building on my skill with the medium of acrylic paint, using transparent and opaque methods in separate versions.

In the transparent version below, the white of the paper illuminates the transparent layers of thinly applied paint. I wanted to achieve a sense of glowing light. I left parts of the paper white and later applied a transparent layer of pure yellow ochre over them. In the background, by contrast, I used a coloured ground, which shows through a later blackened burnt umber layer. 


The opaque version below (using the same two colours) was quite a different experience and outcome. To be able to superimpose light tones on dark gives a greater freedom to experiment with tonal values, repeatedly adjusting until the relationships between them effectively describe the forms, light and shade within the composition. On the whole I’m happy with aspects of the outcome, for instance the use of light and shade, and the descriptive textures of some of the objects. I’d give a little more substance to the background next time, it’s rather flat and empty, and the line of the table would be better drawn straighter. 


Comparing the transparent with the opaque versions is revealing. The transparent tones seem purer but harshly dramatic. The opaque painting has a softer and milky feel to it, and I think the objects look more solid and real. 



This is what I did :-

Set up a still life with artificial light from the right side and made some exploratory tonal sketches in monochrome. 
  • Derwent charcoal pencil. Landscape format sketch done sitting down with the arrangement on a table in front of me. 

  • Willow charcoal, portrait format, zooming in but same viewpoint.


  • Derwent graphitint pencil and XL, landscape again, but standing up, so a higher viewpoint. This is My preferred composition, as the viewpoint and more close-up view seems more interesting. The overall arrangement of shapes and tones seems balanced and the negative shapes contribute to the composition. It’s enlivened by the dark-toned background and the interest of the diagonal tabletop and white card on which the arrangement is set up. 

As I drew I was observing, discovering and learning the relative tones, position of light, shade and cast shadows, the negative shapes, the proportions and lines of the objects. I tried to be fairly precise in order to gather as much information as possible, which might help keep the painting relaxed.  I can see room for improvement in specific parts of the tonal studies, which I’ll try to make in the paintings. In the third study for example the inside of the bowl needs better form; the pestle should be diagonal not horizontal; the dun coloured jug should be darker toned compared to the white bowl and bottles, but not as black as in the first study. 

Next step was to draw the lines in charcoal on the white support. I tried too hard for precision, and ended up with rather dirty paper, so decided to use the support for an opaque painting. I wanted to try a transparent version too, so traced and transferred the line drawing to a second white support. 
First off, the transparent painting, using the white of the paper for lighter tones and highlights, with yellow ochre, burnt umber and a touch of black. I painted quickly, using thinned paint and with the support almost horizontal. I didn’t worry over much about detail and precision, concentrating on giving the objects solidity and the composition depth by building up the tones from light to dark with layers of transparent washes. Without using white paint, light tones can’t be superimposed on darker ones, so I had to be careful to reserve light areas. For the highlights I did this by using masking fluid. If I did the painting again, I’d be careful to reserve lighter tones on the oranges to contrast with the darks and give them a stronger form.
In the opaque painting I used the same colours plus white paint. I concentrated hard on blending colours, trying to achieve gradual transitions of tone from dark to light on curved surfaces, and more defined but still soft edged transitions to depict cast shadows. I could have worked longer, refining and correcting relative tones, but I feel I’ve achieved the aim of the exercise, to practise rendering form, and I’m ready to move on to painting on a coloured ground. 

1.2.1 Tonally graded wash

We’re asked to practise painting carefully graded washes of one and two colours. It feels quite rewarding to do an exercise repeatedly practising one thing, and to see a gradual improvement in the quality of outcome.

I used thin cartridge, gessoed then wet, taped down and dried; and acrylic paints. 


1,2. Cad red (CR)  Used very wet brush.  Paper immediately buckled when painted, so it dried in puddles.

3. CR. Kept the brush only just wet enough to allow brush marks to merge. No buckling while applying paint, smoother grading. 

4. CR. More even grading, but there are small spots in the deeper paint. Paint not mixed with water thoroughly enough?

5. (Not pictured) Daler Rowney Process Magenta (PM). Used a small stiff old brush to mix the colour more thoroughly. Noticed I got smoother blending using the flat of the brush rather than the tip. Even wash, except for a pale area between deeper colour, where I tried to get rid of a brush hair.

6. (Not pictured) PM. Quite even, improving. Imperfect gesso undercoat due to application in poor light caused texture marks at the sides.



Next I used the last four attempts to paint wet in wet blended washes, allowing the two colours to merge in the centre. 

4. The paper had buckled while waiting, so the smoothness of the second wash was affected.  This gave me a sheet with fairly even, intense colour from top to bottom, but with the colour gradually changing from CR to PM.

3. result not so even as the previous one.  Also paler in the middle. 

5. Best so far. Quite even, and intense in the middle. Still getting those small spots – thinking maybe there’s a residue of soap in my brushes. 

6. Not bad, though paper seriously buckled when wet – but dried flat again. 


1.2.2 Overlaying washes

The exercise is firstly to paint graded washes again, with the second colour painted over the dried wash this time


I used Canson XL Mixed Media 300gsm paper for this exercise, not gessoed; I only taped the corners. 

First I painted four initial graded washes and left them to dry.  The paper hardly buckled at all. My brush marks are too obvious, although the 4th paper was best (top right), so my technique was improving. 


I’ve found it handy to use a palette with several deep wells, 3 wells per colour – strong, medium and weak solutions. 

The second colour brushed onto the dried wash using a softer watercolour brush. 


Differences in the way the paint and colour behave:

  • Overlaying a wash seemed to give greater control – when adding wet into wet I felt I could be pushing the previous carefully applied layer around and creating unevenness. Overlaying allowed for time and reflection between washes – merging wet colours means preparing both washes beforehand and following one immediately by the other, before the first has time to start drying. 
  • The colours merged and floated together when painting wet into wet, (although when I was ready to apply the second wash the first was damp rather than wet) and became in effect one wash comprising two graded colours.  By contrast the overlaid wash didn’t merge, but became a separate, transparent layer, with the first showing through and modifying it. This created a subtly varied and more interesting surface. 
  • I can think of many and varied uses for these techniques. On a large scale, I could create a sky with smoothly modifying colour towards the horizon. On a smaller, detailed scale I could use glazes to build up subtly changing skin tones on a figure painting. The technique would produce good results using colours close to each other on the colour wheel – complementary colours would produce a dun-coloured wash, but that would be good for moderating colours to light greys and tans in aerial perspective. 
Other colours – making both wet in wet blended washes and overlaid glazes
Canson cartridge paper with W&N Finity Artists Acrylic Colours. Sheets are numbered clockwise from top left. 
  1. Ultramarine with Pthalo Green Blue Shade overlaid glaze; diluted the blue too much, so didn’t start with a very intense shade. I found the paper more absorbent than the gessoed paper I’d used so far; the pigment seemed to sink in leaving a hard-edged brush mark. So before I overlaid the green I dampened the paper with a sponge; this helped the edges blend.
  2. Same colours, second wash applied wet in wet.
  3. Wet paper with sponge. Permanent Alizarin Crimson with Pthalo Green Blue Shade overlaid glaze. Before applying the second wash I used a hairdryer to get the paper completely flat, and it was easier to get a smooth result. Complementary clours merged to form a grey in the middle. 
  4. Permanent Alizarin Crimson with Ultramarine wash applied wet in wet.  I worked over it too much and the two colours blended and streaked. 
  5. Coat of white gesso allowed to dry first. Napthol Red Light with purple (mixed from the same red, and ultramarine) overlaid glaze
  6. Coat of white gesso allowed to dry first.  Same colours, wet in wet. I had thought the gesso might allow the washes to float on the surface and the brush,arks to merge, but it didn’t make for a less absorbent surface.  
  7. Coat of white acrylic  allowed to dry first.  Azo Yellow Medium with purple overlaid glaze. Complementary clours merged to form a light tan in the middle. 
  8. Coat of white acrylic  allowed to dry first.  Azo Yellow Medium with Napthol Red Light wet in wet wash.  I felt the initial coat of white helped make the paper less absorbent.
I’m beginning to realise how hard it is to achieve perfectly even glazes and washes.  In the board above, the first two (blue/green) and the last one (yellow/red) are best. But my best results so far were the glazes done on the Canson Mixed Media paper (see top of this post). Overall I found glazing gave me better results than blending wet in wet washes. 
Notes on properties of colours
Ultramarine in some cases (4, with Alizarin;  6, with Napthol Red; and 7, with yellow) dried with a sediment and seemed harder to blend.  But it blended ok with Pthalo Green.
To see what would happen, I overlaid a third, related colour on my board of washes painted for the previous exercise, ‘Tonally Graded Washes’.
I found the sheets began to acquire a little more depth and subtlety. The earlier ones even started to look texturally quite interesting where there had been runs and streaks. 
I’m leaving this exercise now to look at the colour field paintings of Mark Rothko. 

1.2.3 Opaque colour mixing

I Had to do fresh transparent washes as I had overlaid all my earlier single colour washes. Used DR S3 Process Magenta, and W&N Artists Burnt Umber and Ultramarine I prepared four control sheets:- two single and two overlaid washes (still found Ultramarine a difficult pigment for achieving smooth transitions ). 

Using an easel painting vertically, controlling washes to avoid running. Using separate small brush to mix pigment with water.

I found these washes were easier and better than my earlier attempts – I’ve learned something!


Then I tried to replicate their tones in the single colour washes using white paint instead of water to lighten the tones. The magenta went reasonably well. The burnt umber colour was altered by adding white, strangely becoming darker in the darkest tones, but the sheet had reasonably smooth transitions. 

When I painted my first two-colour sheet I realised too late that the opaque first colour (burnt umber) completely concealed the ultramarine underneath, and I ended up with a single-colour burnt umber opaque sheet. So I went back in with ultramarine, mixing with white and burnt umber gradually. The result was a bit of a disaster, but it’s a learning curve!

The second, burnt umber and process magenta with white went a little better. Each time I do these washes I gain a little more control over them. But they’re far from perfect, and lots more practise is needed.  These techniques are fundamental to painting, and practising them like this it feels rather like learning scales on a musical instrument – repetition is the key. 

In the photos below the left hand of each pair of sheets is transparent, the right opaque. 



Converting the photo to black and white rather shows up the differences in tone on the opaque sheets compared to the transparent sheets. 


Compared to the transparent washes, the opaque colours feel somewhat deafened by the addition of white, as though all the light is being absorbed rather than reflected from the support through the transparent layers.

I think transparent methods would be good for producing atmospheric light, sky, water, distance, mist, cloud and transparent  objects, such as the subtle and translucent quality of natural objects – skin, flowers, shells.   Opaque methods chime more with solid objects, such as in a still life of man-made objects, buildings, and in a landscape might be applied to the foreground. 

1.2.4 Monochrome studies


This exercise highlights the difference between painting an object and painting the negative shapes that give it form.

As I did it, I also learned more about my materials. The greys I used were mixed from three colours, which was a useful exercise in its own right. I learned the extent to which acrylic paint dries significantly darker, and the need to mix enough paint beforehand to cover an area that needs to be consistent in tone. I learned that precise, painstaking painting isn’t so enjoyable or so effective as wading in broadly with big brushes and a palette knife. 


This is what I did:- 

Made two observational drawings in my 25×25 Seawhite sketchbook. The first a young oak (dark trunk and branches against the background); the second a poplar, Populus Alba (pale trunk and branches against a dark, wooded background). Both done in graphitint pencils and water brush. Impatiently, I didn’t finish toning in the negative spaces in the second; warning bells should have rung at his stage, but I left it there anyway. 



For the oak tree I used some old Arches rough watercolour paper 180gsm, gessoed 34×55.  I laid in a transparent background using S3 Process Magenta, Cyan and Yellow with water. In painting the tree with a concentrated mix of the same colours, my aim was to avoid detail and keep the brush marks free.  I successfully modulated the tones of receding branches, and roughly scraped a stiff old toothbrush around to create an impression of masses of twigs.  I broadly painted the background context of the tree, this time adding white to the dark mixture. The simple composition indicates a foreground, middle ground and distance, but I found the tones didn’t give the impression of aerial perspective and I had to try again. Aerial perspective is a bit of a bugbear for me, and I was also thrown by inexperience with using acrylic paint. 

The final painting therefore has both transparent and opaque areas. 


I found the ‘Negative painting’ method much harder. The instructions puzzled me, and I thought at first the idea was to end up with a light toned tree against a dark background. I checked a few student blogs and realised we were being asked to paint the negative spaces with a light tone over an initial dark layer, and the dark tree would emerge.

My first attempt (Canson cartridge, gessoed 50×70) was painstakingly done but I was mixing (opaque) paint on the go instead of mixing enough of one tone to cover an area; and I was underestimating how much darker the paint would dry. As a result, while I had sharp, detailed edges to trunk and branches, the tones of the negative spaces were all over the place, and the overall background was much too dark- the tree hardly stood out.  On the other hand the effect was quite good, reminiscent of a patchwork quilt or stained glass window.

Next session, with my palette knife and almost white paint I thinly and roughly covered the background, which apart from being enjoyable to do, gave an impression of texture and leaves. This also dried too dark as it was quite thin paint. I persevered, obliterating, adjusting tones, redoing the dark branches and twigs where they’d been lost. This is the stage where I decided to stop – by no means a finished painting, but better than the first version. 



 Although more difficult to get the hang of, painting negative shapes seemed to give a more lively result. My feeling is it would be especially effective where light is shining through from the distance towards the viewer, as here in a rough ink sketch I made in Drawing 1. The light yellow negative shape seems to pop the trees to the foreground. 

A limitation of painting the negative shapes, is that it is difficult to paint them consistently and accurately when the foreground object is highly complex, such as the delicate tracery of masses of branches and twigs, but approaches to solve this problem will come with experience.

Transparent paint might be used where delicate colour modulation is needed, with underneath layers modifying the layers above. Transparent layers could be added to opaque areas to modify and vary tone and colour. Opaque paint could be used for representing solid and plastic surfaces. 

1.1.1 Getting to know your brushes (using acrylics)

 Acrylic experiments with mark-making and blending. 

I discovered different ways of using the medium – with lots of water, washes like watercolour can be produced, blended and graded; and with little or no water the paint can be applied thick, in a textural way.

I played with different size brushes, first getting to know them by organising them into filberts, flats and rounds. 


I made marks with 2 colours side by side on the brush; dabbing with the flat of a large, flat brush, and using it on its side; produced repeating shapes, stamping the paint on; made wavy lines, straight lines, stipples and so on, by choosing the best brush and holding brushes in different ways. 

I used the brush ferrule to get a dry-brush effect. You can be quite brutal with these bristle brushes apparently, but mine are a bit old and splayed from past oil painting, so I may need to invest in some new ones, especially filberts. 

The paint can be mixed on the support, on the palette, or in a dish if using wet washes. I tried blending with brush, rags, fingers – the last two felt quite visceral. 

When I painted the simple landscape from memory, I started out using the paint like watercolour. The paper buckled quite a lot, although it eventually dried flat. I used thicker paint for the middle ground, and neat paint for the textures in the foreground, using a variety of marks and ways of holding the brushes. I made the landscape painting very quick and simple.  The aim was to start getting familiar with the paint and what can be done with it, not to make a great painting. 

Seawhite A3 cartridge paper sketchbook

Seawhite A3 cartridge paper sketchbook


Seawhite A3 cartridge paper sketchbook

 The grapefruit was directly lit from the side and was painted on gessoed paper.  The paper still buckled, but the gesso made the surface more robust and less absorbent I think. The background was done with large flat brush with dilute paint in two colours, blended with the brush on the paper, trying to get a gradual transition from green to red-green. The fruit done with neat paint in quite coarse brush-strokes with a medium size flat brush, the marks left unblended and made to follow the contours of the fruit. The surface the fruit is on was similarly done. The notes under the painting express by feeling of struggling with a new medium. 

180gm fine grain sketchbook, painting is 17x17cm