Setting the Tone

Lately I’ve been pondering an art question: Why do we tone canvases with acrylic before painting? Now, first, let me clarify. I’m not asking the reason for toning our canvases. I’m just curious about the use of acrylics.

I know exactly why I use an acrylic wash to tone my surface before I paint. It’s because I was taught to do it. I can’t recall which of my many “art instructors” — meaning the authors of art books I’ve read — first showed me the value of working on a toned canvas, but I do know that it was a major breakthrough for me as a struggling oil painter.

Toning my canvas has become the first step in almost all of my oil painting projects — one exception being my recent plein air painting experience. That was a rather spontaneous decision, and I didn’t have any toned canvases that I could use that morning. So, I painted on a plain white canvas panel, and I’m inclined to think that maybe the painting would have looked better had it been done on a toned canvas. But, then again, maybe not.

One reason why I love toning canvases is because it’s so simple. It’s one step in the creative process where I absolutely cannot fail. It’s now also become one step where I can experiment a little, and this is what prompted a lot of my questions.

My first experiments involved various colors. I was taught to use an earthy hue — yellow ochre and burnt sienna are often suggested — and I mixed together a pale coral acrylic that I liked. It added a suggestion of warmth to my paintings. I liked the hue and used it often.

But then it seemed that many of my skies began to look the same. I love painting skies, and I wanted lots of different looks, so I tried using a pale blue for toning a canvas. I liked the results, and I began experimenting more.

One experiment involved painting the same scene three times, using a different color for toning each canvas. You can see the results here: A Pleasant Rut. I’ve enjoyed using lavender, blue, and coral, and common sense has dictated that as a landscape painter I should stay away from yellows and greens — unless I plan to create very strange and stormy skies. Hmmm…that might be a fun thing to try. Oh, that rule, actually, seems only to apply to acrylic toning. I’ll get to that in a moment.

I’ve never used black or gray acrylic to tone a canvas either, although I know there are many painters who do. Someday I will try these neutrals and see if I like the results.

But, back to the question. Why acrylics? Maybe because it’s cheap. Maybe because it’s quick and easy. But do we have to use acrylics if we choose to tone a canvas?

Nope, not at all. This is something I learned recently, and I’m liking the effects I’m getting by toning canvases first with a light application of oil. I’m using mostly earthy colors again, and I like the more muted colors I’m getting in my paintings.

I should be keeping better notes instead of trying to retain all the information in my head. It’s difficult for me to remember now which colors I’ve used for various paintings. I know this was one was done with an earthy greenish-brown oil toning.

Finished and FramedI had no problems creating the blue skies and white clouds, and I think having the earthy green base helped me achieve more realistic colors for the leaves and ground.

Green, of course, is always the most difficult color for me. I’ve tried various methods for creating natural-looking greens. I’m finally getting closer to creating the right mix — at least from time to time.

I may never be able to completely banish “demon green“, but I’m not seeing it quite so often now in my landscapes.

Here are a few of the paintings I presently have “in the works” along with a few notes about the initial toning.

First is one you’ve seen before as a completed scene.  Here is how the canvas looked after it was toned — and here I had already sketched in the scene I would paint.


The next is another painting in progress where I used an earthy tone as the base.

Toning 1

Here is yet another with the earthy sienna base.

Toning 3

None of these photos are very good. I know it’s difficult to really see the colors. I’ll take more care in photographing them once the paintings are finished.

For comparison, here is a painting I’m working on where I used a very orange hue — in oil — to tone the canvas.

Toning 2

At this point, I think I prefer toning my canvas with oil rather than acrylic. Maybe there isn’t really much difference. It could be just a matter of personal preference.

Another important consideration I learned was that it’s fine to paint oil over acrylic, but not so fine to paint acrylic over oil. While this is a good guideline to follow, I read recently that it is possible to use acrylic over oil. Really? I had to put it to the test.

Earlier that day I had attempted to cover an old canvas with oil. It was a scene I’d painted over a year ago, and it was definitely not one of my favorites. I hated the picture. But the oil I was using wasn’t covering it very well. So, I decided to go brave and bold. I poured out a bit of teal acrylic paint, grabbed a brush, and at last that awful scene disappeared.

So what I have here is a canvas panel that may or may not have first been toned with a light acrylic wash — I can’t remember — but was definitely painted with oils. It was then covered with a light oil wash, and finally covered with a thick layer of teal acrylic paint. It’s been slowly drying for several days.

Teal Canvas (2)

The dark shadow on the right isn’t there — it’s just a result of the bad lighting and bad photography. The lighter area on the upper right, however, is there, although it’s not quite so pink.

One thing I love about toning a canvas is that it always results in slight imperfections, and those imperfections inspire me. They always stir my imagination, and I can begin to “see” possibilities for a painting even before I’ve sketched out a single line. Here, my mind is crying out “seascape” and this is likely what I will do with the canvas. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll do something completely different.

No matter what happens with my teal canvas, I will be playing around a lot more with toning. I want to try doing multi-colored toned canvases. I want to play around with using gesso — both white and colored — for toning my canvases. I will experiment with darker shades and lighter tints. I’ll use both oils and acrylics.

Maybe this is all a part of developing a personal style, not so much in the painting itself, but in the process. It’s definitely a fun part of art, and I’m interested in learning all I can about how other oil painters approach their canvases.

How do you “set the tone” for your paintings?



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