Category Archives: 1.3 Working on different grounds

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.