Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

January 30, 2014

Picking Your Tones.

Filed under: How to do,London,Painting,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 11:56 am

I have been out painting with others a lot recently, and it is very interesting watching people paint the same day as you are. One of the things I see people having difficulties with is tonal value. So I thought I would pick apart one of my pictures to show how I assessed the subject and how I ended up with the tones I did in the final picture. First here is the scene as the camera saw it.


coldbath st, deptford

This is the splendidly named Coldbath Street in Deptford. The camera sees the whole thing in more contrast than the eye does, but the tone

areas are if anything clearer in the photo than to the eye. To this end I often look at the camera display for any hints as to the tonal arrangement

of the scene. I don’t remember if I did in this case but I often do. After squinting I decided the image breaks down into three tones and white board.



This is taken from a scan of my final painting so the lay in tones were pretty similar. I did not block in with flat colour as here but used a variety to give interest.

However the basic tonal values were much as above. I only drew out the areas as I knew that any drawing would be covered by the blocking out. I use a mix of glaze

medium and turps so this first layer dries pretty quickly. Once this is dry I did a bit more drawing to define the pavement etc. Once you have these basic areas in

then the rest is fun and pretty straightforward. I did put a fair bit of time though getting these three tones mixed. I did this on my palette so I could see the tones next

to each other. So first I mixed a white with a hint of Naples yellow in it. Then I mixed the sky colour and put it next to my white. This took a few goes as the blue had

to be darker than I expected. I find it best to decide tone from light to dark, so the blue has to be dark enough for the clouds to be bright. As the clouds are one extreme

they are a fixed tonal point from which you can work.  I added a hint of yellow to the blue also. With these two tones in place I mixed the dark of the buildings. I knew the

distant ones would be bluer and lighter but that is easily done on top of the base tone. The tone of the buildings has to be dark enough to give a believable contrast with

the sky yet light enough to take a dark. Once you have these tones side by side on the palette you can make fine adjustments. Finally I mixed my road which was hardest as

it had the most variation. The road tone needed to be darker than the sky but distinctly lighter than the buildings. It would also eventually have to take a highlight that

was bright but not quite as bright as the cloud highlights. By making a ring with my fingers and isolating areas I could tell that the road was generally darker than the sky

even though to the eye it looked almost brighter. If you make a hole in a bit of card you can also check tones. Move the hole rapidly between the two areas and it will

immediately show which is lighter or darker by the “jump” in value. You can then do the same between the colours on your palette to see if the strength of the “jump”

is similar.


Deptford, Coldbath Street, London, plein air, oil painting

Here is the final painting. As you can see it does not take much variation within a tonal area to hint at structure and light. The blues of the distant

buildings were simply achieved by painting into the still wet darks with the sky tone.  This particular subject has simple strong contrasts a grey day

will have a narrower tonal range and so the distinctions between each area are more subtle. With such subjects a careful assessment of tone is even

more important. Once you have gained some practice it becomes easier to pick apart the subject. Squinting is a very useful tool as it simplifies and

shows which areas can be combined and which need to remain distinct. 10in by 14in oils.


Dulwich Village, london, rain, plein air, oil painting

Here we have one of those grey days. This is Dulwich Village in Sth London. The process was exactly the same as the more dramatic Coldbath

painting. I first established the relationship between the brightest area (the white building) and the sky. I next mixed a warm and cool grey for

the trees and buildings. The road was again the most difficult. The eye wished to see it almost as bright as the sky, but on checking I found that very

far from the case! I had no more than 30min to block this in. I probably spent as much time mixing as I did painting. 10in by 16in oils.


Dulwich Village, London, plein air, oil painting

Another one from Dulwich. Painting in the rain is hard enough but it was windy too so this again was done in 30 min or so. Here the key tone

relationships are the warmth of the background trees and brickwork against the slightly lighter and cooler pavement. Also the relationship of

both of these to the vertical bar of light made by the shop fronts. 8in by 10in oils


Blackheath, watercolour

Not had a great deal of chance to get out due to paid work… I was a relief to dash this down on my way back from the market in Blackheath.


  1. Very good description of the tonal technique Rob.

    Can I suggest you make your text justified not centred, it is difficult to read.


    Comment by Doug — January 30, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

  2. Very informative post. Hopefully, I’ll be able to absorb it and use it when I’m out and about. Tonal range is always the most difficult thing to cope with outside.

    Comment by Mick Carney — January 30, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

  3. Rob, all brilliant paintings. i know Colbath st, and i find this painting exceptionaly brilliant.
    You are a fine painter Rob, and there is no doubt about that. All the best.

    Comment by victor Errington — January 30, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

  4. Another top piece of guidance. I’m sure that many of us will find it very useful.

    Comment by Terry Preen — January 30, 2014 @ 4:36 pm

  5. Hi Doug I need to migrate the whole blog to a different layout… the task is a bit forbidding though!

    Comment by Rob Adams — January 30, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

  6. Rob,
    I really enjoyed this blog thanks. Some very useful tips here. It must be very gratifying to be able to produce such really effective paintings so quickly. Keep sending them through as I always enjoy reading your stuff and looking at your pictures. Tony

    Comment by Tony Lampert — January 30, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

  7. Many thanks for another very valuable, informative post Rob. I could never get tired of admiring these quick paintings you produce, I think I enjoy them easily as much as more “finished” work. If I could produce even one painting of this standard it would keep me floating for a whole year!!

    Comment by Kevin — January 30, 2014 @ 10:32 pm

  8. Very, very nice – I’m really liking these recent posts. You’re right a lot of people (myself included) have trouble with tones. In fact I was so taken by the Coldbath Street scene that I attempted it myself. Wow it was hard and I wasn’t very successful! I have renewed admiration for your painting now.

    Comment by Michele Clamp — February 15, 2014 @ 11:26 pm

  9. Just thought – I hope you don’t mind me borrowing your photo.

    Comment by Michele Clamp — February 16, 2014 @ 11:05 pm

  10. Hi Michele, no problem hope it was useful!

    Comment by Rob Adams — February 17, 2014 @ 9:10 pm

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