Drawing Basics: To Tone or Not to Tone

6 Nov 2013

Oil painting by Judith St. Ledger-Roty, illustrating how an undertone warms a work up.
Oil painting by Judith St. Ledger-Roty,
illustrating how an undertone warms a work up.

I’m a lifetime student of art like so many of you, and I savor sharing our mutual love of drawing and painting as well as swapping tips and methods about how we each work in our own unique way.

I have always loved the outdoors and always had the desire to paint figures as well as animals, like horses, in the landscape. That desire has remained constant over the years that I have been drawing or painting in the studio. But I’ve found that wherever I am, indoors or out, there are many foundational techniques that apply to all the drawing and painting I do.

One is to go back and forth between subject matters. I have found that I need a continuing balance between the figure and landscape (and drawing and painting for that matter!).

I have also found that toning my support, whether canvas or paper or board, is something I often do now. I’m showing two works to illustrate the difference between toning and not toning.

Pencil drawing by Judith St. Ledger-Roty, showing how not toning a surface can lead to a stark result.
The surface of this pencil drawing wasn't
toned—a missed opportunity to create depth
in the work before the first stroke.
The first image, a painting, has been toned with cadmium orange—you can see the underlying color along the top edge of the painting—which is quite warm compared to the snow scene I painted. To make the tree look warm, I scratched down to the canvas level through the paint of the snow to make the bark and branches. Most of the visible tree is simply the undercoat showing through, a method taught to me by landscape painter Sara Linda Poly. But without the undertone, this would have been a waste of time. No undertone--no warmth.

The second is a landscape pencil drawing with no undertoning. It looks stark compared to the warmth of the painting. I’ve taken this lesson to heart, toning my surface or using toned paper regardless of the subject or medium I am working on or with. I consider this one of several drawing basics, and can really set a work apart and give it depth, even if you are working on quick and easy drawings.

What do you say? Do you agree or have you found toning to be a complication to your work? How so?

--Judith


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Comments

Beatty wrote
on 17 May 2011 3:46 AM

Judith, Have you ever done this toning with  watercolors? Susan

CalicoYellow wrote
on 17 May 2011 10:31 AM

I have to admit, I have not worked much with using an under tone in my paintings.  However, of late I took a work shop where indeed we did an under tone and I was amazed.  What really sets up the painting I think is your choice of color for the under tone as it sets the stage for the final rendering.

lfarist wrote
on 17 May 2011 10:36 AM

When I tone a canvas I find that my paintings are more accurate and interesting.

Juan Quiles wrote
on 17 May 2011 12:10 PM

I always tone before painting any subject. It helps establish a neutral foundation for my paintings and eliminates the "intimidating white" of the plain canvas.

I have found that toning gives my paintings more interest and a better overall look.

Kisu wrote
on 17 May 2011 12:44 PM

I agree.  I started using colored papers with watercolor and gouache, and also charcoal and pastel and it was fun to introduce another color and value component to the composition.  I've also been partially to completely toning canvases in my oil painting.  Sometimes it's just a neutral 'wash' of thinned out paint, and other times it's a heavier, more complete application of a color of higher chroma.  On the latter, I've found I have to wait about 24 hours for the undertone to dry or else the initial sketching of the subject gets too muddy.  

JSLATE wrote
on 18 May 2011 8:10 AM

Greetings Judith,

I must be missing something here. First you have two very different mediums here. Second in oil if you mix your paint correctly there's no need to scratch off paint to expose the underpainting, just put warm colors in the trees. Then the pencil drawing is a black and white drawing and all colors of gray in between,an underpainting would be gray paper maybe. I understand a background color and a fore ground color. Please explain.

JSLATE

on 23 May 2011 12:51 PM

Hi:  I love the idea of using tone to create warmth.  I will spend my summer in the

mountains above Mesa AZ.  I plan to tone my canvasses and paint a lot of scenes.

Loved the article.  

newcraft wrote
on 23 May 2011 9:15 PM

question  Would you tone a pencil drawing with paint or just pencil shading or crosshatching etc.?  Thanks

rhaslach wrote
on 25 Oct 2013 9:35 AM

Toned paper in drawing: yes! Just switching to sanguine Conté crayon on a pale blue Rising Stonehenge opened wonderful perspectives for me

rhaslach wrote
on 25 Oct 2013 9:36 AM

Toned paper in drawing: yes! Just switching to sanguine Conté crayon on a pale blue Rising Stonehenge opened wonderful perspectives for me

wendygoerl wrote
on 26 Oct 2013 11:21 AM

Hmm, oil painting vs. very rough sketch. Not the best grounds for comparison. I find myself toning more than I used to, but usually I just work the first colors well into the gesso, making toning redundant. I will tone the canvas if a plan on using a mottled background or something more "strokey."

sketchz101 wrote
on 9 Nov 2013 12:52 PM

hello

the pencil work hints at what might have been done with the first , that is ,

Values in monochrome .

toned papers are a more ' off the shelf ' product .

a wash or stain with liquid media on white canvas is simply one step to create that ,

> a photo of the toned canvas before further painting should have been included .

e

katepaints wrote
on 9 Nov 2013 1:17 PM

I think the oil painting with the ground or tone of cad orange is a great illustration of this technique. I used it for years with oil pastels. However, comparing it with the pencil drawing on a bare background is like comparing apples and oranges. I think it would have been more illustrative for drawing purposes to have a pencil drawing on a colored background. Painting and drawing are two different critters, although one needs to have at least the fundamentals of drawing to paint well.

on 10 Nov 2013 4:11 AM

I paint with acrylics and generally I like to tone first as I prefer a colour over facing a stark white canvas. I've never been brave enough for a cadmium tone though, looks super Judith - I might try it.

Shelly

www.shellywillingham.com

Pazlo wrote
on 14 Nov 2013 11:28 AM

I've painted (oils) in gray scales only (essentially monochrome) as tonal study, to learn to manage the values.

I've often thought I'd like to return to the tonal study and add the colors.

If I do, I'll shoot a before & after and post it.

Scott R. O'Connor

Crescent Moon Studio

Kazim Ben wrote
on 13 Apr 2014 6:44 PM

Dear Judith,

1. You say: "... But without the undertone, this would have been a waste of time. No undertone--no warmth."

- I Ihh; I don't think so!  First of all, an artist had better think "widely" and "great". Because there aren't "must"s and "no"s in art. Everything and every way or technique are possible; as long as you do or catch the beauty, creativness or aesthetics..

- Secondly, making undertone can't only warm the painting but also make it cooler, if you use cold/cool colors.

2. And You say: ".... The first image, a painting, has been toned with cadmium orange..."

- As I understand what you said: this is not "toning" "Toning" is a different thing; Your work that you are trying to explain is "underpainting" in litterateur!

3. And You say, too: " ... toning my surface or using toned paper .... can really set a work apart and give it depth,"

- In your, so called, toning (by me it is "underpainting") can't  "set a work apart and give it depth"

Only artists' ability, knowledge, experience, determination , diligence, creavity and mastership set a work apart.

- Underpainting is one of many technique that makes painting work easy in order to obtain integrity between colors that is used in the painting. It can' create depth; but applying linear and aerial perspective can do it.

- Also, without underpainting, you can do it, as JSLATE wrote at comments:on 05-18-2011 5:10 PM; "... in oil if you mix your paint correctly there's no need to scratch off paint to expose the underpainting, just put warm colors in the trees."

4. Sorry, but I think you have misunderstood or forgotten what your teacher taught to you...

With my best regards. :)

K. Çalışır