To Tone or Not to Tone — That is the Question

I’ve written several posts in the past which talk about the practice of toning a canvas before painting, that is, applying a thin layer of color to cover the stark white support. I enjoy toning canvases, and I think that’s because this was one of the first “secrets” about oil painting that I learned. The first time I read about toning it seemed to intuitively make sense.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with toning my canvases in many different ways. I’ve used acrylics, I’ve used acrylic gesso, and I’ve used thinned-down oil paints. Is one method better than another? So far, I haven’t seen any particular advantages or disadvantages between one way and the other.

Another debate regarding toning before painting involves color choice. Initially I was taught to use an earthy tone — made with thin oil — usually a burnt umber or a yellow ochre. Another art book suggested acrylics in warm, coral tones. I tried that, I liked it, and then for fun, I experimented with using cool tones as well.

Gradually I began toning canvases — just for the pure fun of it — as part of my studies on color. I used every color acrylic imaginable. Reds, greens, browns, yellows, blues, oranges, and violets. After toning each canvas I would look at the colors and try to associate different emotions. I then wrote those emotions on the back and used them as a guide when I was ready to paint a particular scene.

Maybe it helped. One painting where I chose my canvas based on my emotional response to the toning I’d applied went on to win a first-place ribbon in a regional art show. I like to think that some of the emotions I felt came through in the final painting.

One of my “experiments” in canvas toning.

Another way in which I experimented with acrylics and toning was by letting the colors do different things. I mixed different colors, created somewhat abstract “tones” in an experimental approach to my landscape painting. It was interesting, and sometimes my somewhat abstract tonings would suggest ideas to my imagination, but overall it proved rather pointless.

In discussions with different artists, I’ve now come across many different ideas and opinions about toning canvases. Some artists never do; some always do. Some use acrylics; some use oils. Some use only one color; others vary the colors they use.

Obviously there’s no consensus here, so ultimately we each have to consider the reasons — for and against each aspect — and come up with our own decisions.

A good place to start is with this question: What’s the purpose of toning a canvas? There are two good reasons:

  • Just as working on toned gray paper helps graphite or charcoal artists judge values more accurately, toning a canvas helps an oil painter make better decisions about relative colors and values.
  • Toning a canvas before painting prevents little “white spots” of canvas from showing through.

These are both very good reasons, and the second one — since I have a tendency to be skimpy on paint — is especially important for me.

Once we move beyond these common-sense considerations, the reasons behind toning our canvases become subject to opinion. I’ve heard that we should tone our canvases to provide “warmth” to our paintings, always using, of course, a warm color such as a burnt umber, a pale pink, or a coral.

But maybe we’d rather do the opposite! Maybe we’re wanting an overall “cool” effect for a landscape or other painting. Advocates of the “color temperature” school of toning would quickly go along with the idea and suggest those pale blues and lavenders.

There are many advocates for the “complentary color” theory of toning. In other words, consider the dominant color you’ll be using for the painting, then use its complement as the tone. There are also those who stick with and swear by the “earthy color” tone for landscape painting, and there are those who say that any neutral color will be just fine.

My most recent experiments with various colors for toning came during the 31-day landscape project that I did in December. I worked on manila cards, so applying a gesso tone was a necessary first step. Instead of using white gesso for all my cards, I tried various hues: white, pale blue, gray, hot pink, and black. It was fun, and I’ll go on record here and now saying that while the hot pink paintings were interesting, I don’t think I’ll be using that color for toning again.

If I were asked to choose a favorite, I’d probably say I most enjoyed working on the black-gessoed cards. Having the black tone seemed to help me establish the moodiness I was seeking in those particular paintings.

So, why am I going over all of these questions again? I’m doing this because this is where my 100-day “mood and atmosphere” journey begins. The first thing Carolyn Lewis teaches in “Painting Mood and Atmosphere” is the importance of toning the canvas. She mentions the two reasons I’ve shared, and adds a third:

“Toning the canvas can speed the painting process. A midvalue background tone can suffice for the middle values in a quick study, so you just have to put down the darks and lights.”

She doesn’t discuss various colors or theories, not does she quibble about oils versus acrylics. Her instruction is to use a colored gesso, just as I did in my project last December. She suggests using either a coral hue or a neutral gray.

Accordingly, I’ve started my 100-day journey by grabbing my gesso and mixing it with a bit of acrylic. I’ve toned several canvases with a coral and several with gray. I have black gesso as well as white, and before I complete this journey I definitely want to use this for toning a canvas. I liked painting over the black tone in December; I think I would enjoy trying it for a larger landscape painting, too.

Another tip that Carolyn Lewis provides — which I’ve never done in the past — is to lightly sand the gessoed surface before painting. Once my gessoed surfaces are completely dry, I’ll do that.

Of course, I’m not asking that you follow the advice of Carolyn Lewis or that you take my word for what does or doesn’t work when it comes to toning your canvases. My suggestion is that you read what different artists have to say, try a few experiments of your own, and come to your own conclusions.

Here are a few articles I’ve found on the topic:

How to Tone a Canvas for Oil and Acrylic Painting

Toning a Canvas Prior to Oil Painting

Why Do Artists Paint on Toned Canvases?

Why Should You Tone the Canvas First?

One other thought before I close. I often re-cycle old paintings. I have a lot of “practice paintings” and paintings that just didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped. Applying acrylic over oil isn’t recommended, but I can use gray oil paint to cover the old painting and start anew.

So, that’s all I know about toning. If you have other thoughts or ideas, please share. I’m always interested in learning more!

 

10 Comments

  1. As always you give a wealth of great info on toning. New to the concept, I prefer warm toning. Recently I toned a small gouache painting with a pale peach wash of watercolor. My experiments with gouache over tinted gesso were messy. Not enough tooth left for the gouache to sink into. I will putting all this into a post soon.

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    1. I think overall I prefer using the warmer colors for toning. I’m working on a painting now with a coral hue for the tone, and it does seem to add a little warmth to the scene. One of the main things I’m working to learn is how to use light to create mood, and in the daytime, that light is usually very warm. If I were painting an evening or night scene, though, I would probably opt for a cool tone or even black. When I did my 31-day “index card” project and painted on black-toned manila cards, I really liked the results. So, for me, my opinion is that acrylic gesso works best — usually with warm color, but sometimes with a cool color. It’s definitely something to experiment with. There are so many different approaches we can take.

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  2. I always tone as I find white so difficult to see proper colours with, especially if you are not covering the whole surface. Always use acrylic and the oil for the main painting. I like earthy colours for landscapes, pink or dilute alizarin for faces and strong cadmium red for bold abstracts. But of course it is fun to play around as well.

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    1. It sounds like you have a good plan worked out for yourself and your art. In the past, I first liked using thinned oil paints for toning. Now, I prefer acrylic gesso with a touch of color added. Generally I do prefer the warmer, earthier colors for landscapes, but I also like cooler blues and grays for some scenes. As you said, it’s fun to play around!

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    1. Yes, indeed! Colored pencil work can be very time-consuming. Doing underpaintings can be helpful there. I rarely use colored pencils anymore simply because I don’t really have the patience required. 🙂

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    1. I go back and forth… but here’s another reason why I do enjoy toning. It helps me “ease in” to painting. Maybe that sounds silly, but it gives me a chance to take the first steps on a painting without concerning myself with the outcome. I can get out my canvas, start putting paint on and thinking about what I’ll paint. It’s sort of a “dream time” where I’m free to imagine all sorts of things. Mostly I do prefer the warm, earthy colors, but when I was experimenting with lots of different colors, it was really fun.

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