step by step painting of a man

Sepia painting painting of a figure in watercolour by Linda MacAulay.

Tonal Layering in Watercolour

by Linda MacAulay

It’s been a while since my last blog. Lately family commitments seem to be getting in the way of painting. Balancing family and painting can be one of the hardest things to do as a female artist. I have been working on an exhibition opening in March with my good friend and fellow artist Stephanie Mew. This exhibition is based on our road trip from Melbourne to Uluru in August of last year. We had the pleasure of indulging ourselves totally in our art for 2 weeks with no family or domestic commitments. On the home front our wonderful husbands packed lunches, did the school runs, cooked, cleaned and kept our families functional while we were away.

You can not underestimate the value of having time to completely immerse yourself in something you love. It was a total recharge for both of us and has been a huge source of inspiration for the works we are both doing in the studio now.

This month’s blog has been inspired by my return to teaching after the long Christmas break. It is always good to revisit the fundamentals with a fresh eye. The picture on the right is an example of a figure painted in sepia tones using the tonal layering technique

grey scale for artistsAs a realist painter getting the right tone is critically important to making your painting work. Tone refers to how light or dark a particular area is. In watercolour you do not use white paint so your lightest tone would be the white of the paper and your darkest tone would be the undiluted pigment. As you add more water to your paint, the colour becomes progressively lighter in tone or value. All great realist artists regardless of the medium have mastered the use of tone or value.

I often recommend my students take a few colours and create a tonal scale from one to ten like the one pictured to the left of this text. The darkest value is the undiluted pigment straight from the tube and the lightest is the white of the paper. It is actually quite tricky to get the scale to go from dark to light evenly over 10 different values but this ability is one of the fundamentals of watercolour. Think of this exercise like practicing scales on the piano.

Watercolour painters start by laying down the lightest washes first leaving the white of the paper untouched. They then lay in successively darker washes over the top to create the detail. One of the best ways to practice this skill is to paint a tonal picture using one colour only. I would recommend using a dark colour like Sepia, Paynes Grey, Indigo or Cobalt Blue. These colours are easy to glaze over and provide a good range of tones to work with.

You will need a black and white photograph for this exercise. Newspapers are an excellent source of photographs to work with as long as you are not reproducing them to sell which will infringe on the photographers copyright. If your photograph is in colour choose one with good tonal ranges and then get a good quality black and white photocopy of it.


White watercolour paper

Light Grey watercolour wash

Mid grey watercolour wash

Dark Grey watercolour wash

In the example below I am only going to use the 4 different tones of Paynes Grey pictured in the table above. In most of my paintings I only use 4 different tones as these tones used wet on wet or with soft and hard edges will create all the variations in value you will need. The technique is called tonal layering as each colour variation is layered on over the top of the dry wash underneath building up the saturation of colour as you go. The first light grey wash covers most of the paper leaving only the whitest areas. The second wash is applied over the dry first wash and leaves some of the light grey tones as well as the white. The final wash is applied over the previously dried washes and is used to add the finishing details,textures and colour variations.

It’s a good idea to identify your lightest and darkest tones first. In the picture I have chosen, the lightest tone is the light on the right side of the face and nose and the reflection of the light in the pupil. The darkest tones are the pupil of the eye and the colour of the hijab. Once these values are established you then need to compare every other part of the photograph to them. For example is the white of the eye lighter than the reflected light in the pupil of the eye? The answer is no. The white of the eye is actually quite dark and closer in tone to the mid grey. Notice how I have put in my value scale on the top of the paper before I started painting. This gives me something to compare every part of my photograph with and then I can ask myself is this area closest to white, light grey, mid grey or dark

Drawing on the white watercolour paper.

Add the light grey wash first leaving the white paper untouched.

Next add the mid grey wash over the totally dry light grey wash.

Finally add the details with the darkest grey. Notice the textures.

Practice this technique and you can paint anything. I try and do at least one class a term on this subject and always choose a very complicated subject like a street scene, figure, animal or portrait. This way students can see how easy it is to paint any subject if you understand the process of tonal layering.

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