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How to significantly Improve your Painting Skills. Understanding Value and Tone for better painting.

Art Blog how to improve your painting Painting Technique

Do your paintings look flat and lifeless? Is it hit and miss if your painting works or not? Why are Tonal values and contrast important for improving your painting. 


art blog the importance of tone and value to paint a better painting by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson

You can significantly improve your painting skills with learning this one thing.

Value is more important than colour to the design and the success of your painting. 

I will use the terms tone and value switching the words around but I am talking about the same thing with both these words.

The tonal values are critical. The lights and dark's contribute more to the success of a paintings composition than any other factor, including colour. In fact your painting is only really as good as the tonal values. You can paint something in any colour and it will make sense if the tones are right. Which is good because that means once you master the tones you can go ahead and paint that purple cat or blue tree and it will still look great.

The paintings that stand out are the ones that have strong design and value patterns. 

painting showing improvement in tones

Showing improvement in tones. The top painting looks a little flat with not enough contrast.

The bottom painting draws the eye in with a better light and dark balance.

Tone is essential in creating the illusion of form, space and depth.

Tonal variations can be used very effectively to lead the eye around the work creating movement and excitement. 

For some more in depth information about this topic you might like this book.


The Simple Secrets to better painting by Greg Albert

First off for those new to painting. What is tone or value? What am I talking about here?

Value or tone is how light or dark something is. Not to be confused with colour.

tonal scale for painting

Our brains have preconceived ideas about things that can confuse us if we are not looking out for it. We tend to think of some colours as light, pink, yellow

or dark, brown, purple, blue 

So if we want to paint a white flower our brains tell us to use white even though we can see that the colour in the shadow is nowhere near white. So to an extent we have to ignore our brains and just go with what is really there. Easier said than done I know.

Value is independent of it's hue i.e it's colour. You can have a yellow paint and a blue paint colour that are the same tone or value but they are different hues. This is important as this is often where an artist can get lost and end up with a flat looking painting. Finding all those tones and separating them from the colour it is. 

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Value is used to create a focal point in a painting. The eye is immediately drawn to a light element against a dark. This creates the focal point. You know that saying "Put your greatest contrasts on your focal point." This is what I am talking about here.

acorn painting in acrylic paint by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson

Where is your eye drawn to in this painting? What do you notice first?

Hopefully it's the inside of that acorn cup where the biggest contrast in tones are. Although there are other equally dark areas none have the same contrast with the lights. Therefore your eye is drawn to that one area first. The focal point.

Areas of light and dark give a three dimensional illusion of form to the painting.  This is how we take a flat piece of paper and paint and create something that looks like it has shape. Like the roundness of the acorn. Again this can be where your painting can look flat because you have painted in the different colours but they are the same tones so you don't get that feeling of shape.

You have to temporarily ignore texture, shape, detail and colour and just see the tones. 

 Side Note: If you have some trouble blending your acrylic paint then I recommend using Atelier Interactive acrylic paint. I use this almost exclusively and highly recommend them for ease in blending. Click to try out your set now!  I also have a Video showing you why I love these paints if you want to see how I use them. 

Atelier Interactive acrylic paint set

Back to tones.......

How do you ignore all that colour though?

One way to do it is to use that trick I have talked about before and take a photo of the subject you are painting.Then change it to black and white. You can get a good idea of tones here but you need to be careful not to rely on the photo alone as photos don't show a lot of the mid tones.

But what if your painting is from your imagination and you can't take a photo from the source or it's an abstract? Well you can still take a photo of the painting itself and check if you have enough contrasts and that it is in the right places. 

You can also squint at your subject and then it will make it a bit blurry and the details will fade so you can see the light and dark tones more easily. Or if you are like me and are short sighted just take your glasses off. It has the same effect. 

But what if you are still having trouble separating the tones from the colours. Here's what I do.

I do a tonal painting. What is a tonal painting exactly? Pick one colour, any colour is fine. I just used grey for this and white. I mixed my own grey but you can just use black and white if you want. Then using just that one colour and white, paint the picture in this. This will be the quickest way to really train your eye to see value rather than the colour. If you can't change the colour, you have to change the tone of that colour to show the shape of what you are painting. This exercise can really stretch your painting ability. You will soon find out if you are seeing just colours or the tones of those colours by how much you struggle with this exercise. 

In the acorn example below I am showing you how I painted that first acorn and was struggling with the tones because of the colour.

tonal comparing acorn painting

You can see how, when I change it to black and white it doesn't have the shape and roundness I wanted. Just lots of colour. Take away the colour and it starts to look flat.

I then went on to paint another acorn in just the grey and white. The shape is definitely getting better.

black and white painted acorn

Tonal study of acorn

When I went back to the colour. I did the same acorn as the tonal study and my acorn now has a much better feel of roundness. I could see where the light and dark's work with the mid tones to create the shape. Not just the colour changes. 

compare acorn painting black and white withe colour to explain tones

When I change this acorn to black and white you can see how much more shape it has even with no colour compared to the first acorn.

I encourage you to try some tonal studies and see just how much you can train your eye to see the tonal changes. I use this exercise to plan out paintings when I am unsure where or just how much I need to do for contrast. Like in this "Into the woods" painting. I did a couple of tonal studies first to see just how light I needed that path and road compared to the shed and the focal point in the forest. I couldn't just rely on the photos here as I was changing what was there to suit the story I was telling in this painting. 

Into the wood tonal study art blog by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson


Into the woods art blog about tonal values by Goldstarwork, Artist Laura Wilson

Into the Woods

So if you have got all the way to here in this blog then please share.

I would love to help more people with their painting.

art blog how to improve your painting fast.

I have a video here of me painting that tonal acorn as one of my daily painting exercises. It's a quick time lapse one.


Happy Painting Everyone.

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