Project: Working on Different Coloured Grounds – Exercise: Tonal Study on a Dark Ground


Tonal Study on a Dark Ground

Prepare a dark ground in advance… You could choose a much darker tone of the same colour that you used for the last ground, or experiment by working on a different ground colour, for example a deep blue.

Tonal Study on a Dark Ground Acrylic on Board - A3

Tonal Study on a Dark Ground
Acrylic on Board – A3

After my research into chiaroscuro, I was keen to try this and decided to stick with neat Paynes Grey for my ground colour.  The reason for this was, to compare the previous exercise (Tonal Study on a White Ground) with this one like for like.  Again, I wish I had taken work in progress photos to record the process.  I used the same set up as before, although the hand-cream tube may be slightly different in position because I keep using it and forgetting to put it back!  The directional light from the lamp should be very similar to before, however, the secondary light from the window was dull and I started this study later in the afternoon so it got even more so as I worked on.  This exaggerated the lamp light so there was more contrast in tones.

Using a 1″ flat brush I marked out the mid tones roughly, initially allowing the darkest darks to remain as the ground colour. Again I left my lightest lights right to the end and used varying tones to sculpt the shapes both positive and negative.  As I refined my drawing I needed to reinstate some darks here and there.  It also became clear that most of the cast shadows had subtle nuances within them and some were really quite light,  When I was happy with the drawing and everything bar the sharp highlights, I looked carefully for the very brightest, lightest lights, of which there were not as many as I first thought.  These were added with neat white paint. That done I mixed a really light tone but not neat white and added the secondary highlights. Most of the blocking in was made with the 1″ flat, slightly more structure with 3/4″ and 1/2″ flats and the white highlights with a size 2 round. Much happier with the drawing and scale this time!

Consider ways in which you could exploit these effects of extreme contrast in future paintings,

I often work on coloured grounds, although, usually plump for a mid tone.  Using the extreme dark was great fun and really focussed my eye on all shapes, positive, negative, subject and cast shadow. Also, working in negative and positive colour-ways, really allows you to sculpt the objects without worrying too much about the blank, white space you have to fill.  I think this is useful for both simple still life subjects, such as this, to make you see the interest that everything has when light is used to model shapes, all shadows are not dark, all highlights are not brilliant.  Also, when encountering a more complex subject e.g. a full interior, it simplifies the scene by taking it right down to the basic light, mid and dark tones before detail is needed, if indeed it really is.  The use in portraiture is evident when viewing  Rembrandt’s work, it throws attention on the focal point of the face and sculpts its planes and hollows. This technique adds drama and interest, even in a simple still life or as in Edward Hopper’s Rooms by the Sea or Morning Sun, cast shadows on a plain wall.

Rooms by the Sea 1951 Edward Hopper 1882-1967

Rooms by the Sea 1951
Edward Hopper 1882-1967

Morning Sun 1952 Edward Hopper 1882 - 1967

Morning Sun 1952
Edward Hopper 1882 – 1967







Set out all your tonal studies alongside one another and assess how well each of them has succeeded in modelling light and rendering tonal values. Which effects appeal to you most?

Working left to right my assessment of how well each of these studies has succeeded in modelling light:

  1. Each object has been modelled with tonal contrast, however, apart from the one large cast shadow, there is no sense of place and not a lot of difference between areas in direct light and those in reflective light.
  2. This is beginning to work although the composition itself does not exploit the tone and the form is a little lost on the sugar bowl.
  3. This one is the most successful pencil drawing and is the composition chosen for its interest and tonal contrast to develop.  It’s a quick rendition but effective in showing form and placement, although the darks are nowhere near dark enough.
  4. The charcoal is much more effective at gradations of tone and the darks are more solid, with the mid-tones having more subtlety. This also helped in selecting the composition to develop as it was nearer to the variety of tone that could be created with paint.
  5. This study again proves the versatility of the charcoal in what, is still, a quick study. Lifting out the sharper highlights with a hard rubber and layering the darkest darks gives a more dynamic image.
  6. The first painting of the study on a white ground is even more successful than the charcoal and I was pleased with the tonal variations. The realisation again and again that tones rely on the those adjacent and not to be viewed in isolation was evident through the painting process.
  7. The second painting on a very dark ground proved to be a little mind bending at first as I had to work in reverse or negative to begin with. However, this really worked and made me see the gradation in tone not only on the objects in front of me but within my own painting too. Working this way round made my lightest lights really zing, whereas they became a little lost on the previous study. It proved to me that with a white ground, you really have to work harder at the darks to show lightest lights.

It is probably obvious from the above that the effect that appealed to me most is working on a dark ground.  When working on your darkest tone, there is only one way to go, and yet there are many different shades of tone between the extremes.

Technical Difficulties Encountered:

  • Pencil studies are fine for initial workings and preliminary drawings for establishing dark, mid and light tones but subtlety of tones can easily be lost unless it is a full drawing and time is spent with differing grades of pencil.
  • Both charcoal and pencil can be smudged, which is great when it’s deliberate but can be frustrating if not.
  • Working on a white ground provides luminosity, however, it can be difficult to go really dark and therefore, achieve the lightest highlights.