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What is a Tonal Painting?

Warm Tone No. 5, 12" x 16" oil on canvas, Texas Collection

Tonal painting is the art of using a very limited color palate to define visual elements. Often just a couple colors are used in opposition to create the image. Tonal painting skills are elemental for the developing artist. Something the classical artist’s must train in pursuit of Fine Art degrees worldwide.

During my winter painting season I took time to refresh these skills in this Texas landscape titled Warm Tone No. 5. At first you may just see a couple colors and the overall tone is a subdued warm brown. I used Raw Sienna oil paint by Michael Harding for a monochromatic layout to establish this warm tone before adding other hues, blended with more warm browns.

My artwork is all free hand drawn then painted in many layers of multiple intensities. You will actually find many colors in this tonal painting too, but only a few different tubes of paint were used. Contrast this with Twilight, a very colorful landscape of similar theme, which used many intense purple hues as the base. Twilight was an heirloom painting steeped with representational familial realism; Warm Tone No. 5 has quite the opposite impact.

Essentially, they are both oak trees to the right of a creek. The effects of color tones and hues however offer strikingly different results. Looking at tonal compositions from a distance will allow the light, shapes, and depths come to the forefront. Creating with these elements tease the curiosity.

Life is essentially about self-discovery. We, artists are here to create and stimulate. Looking for interesting tonal elements are what some art critics love to assess at the beginning of their evaluations. Now that you, the art connoisseur know more about tonal painting you can also seek to sharpen your visual skills, figure out what you like and why. The drive for artistic satisfaction is a motivator for the most advanced societies in this world.

Happy New Year!


Twilight, 11" x 14" oil on canvas, Texas Collection

Warm Tone No. 5, 12" x 16" oil on canvas, Texas Collection

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