Light and Shade: Tonal Values for Successful Paintings

easy watercolor beginner landscapes,Impresssionist tree landscape, plum trees,

Whether you’re painting in pastels, watercolours, oils, acrylics, mixed media the single most crucial aspect for more successful artwork is Tonal Values.

Making sure that you first observe and see those variations in tone is key in order to then be able to obtain those tones on your painting. The tricks I use to see Tone vs. ‘object’ is to squint til all the colour and details fade, leaving only variations of Light, Mid, and Dark Tones.

watercolour skies, wet in wet technique beginners,
Freedom in Skies, watercolour wet in wet technique,

Most of us will see colour & detail first, as its usually harder in the beginning to see ‘tones’. You might also find it useful to print out in black and white the image in order to better see where the tonal variations are.

Acrylics and oils typically use white paint in order to create light & mid tones; as well as sometimes adding a bit of white into the darker mix to keep it from being too stark, flat.

Light and Shade,  having a range of tonal values ensures success in any medium!  Oils and acrylic painters rely on the tube of white to create sufficient variations in tone.  Watercolourists generally make use of the white of the paper as their white and dilute the paint with water to create the needed tonal variations of light, mid, dark.

A tip to remember as to where to place your light, mid, dark tones: The sky is darker at the top, mid tone in middle, lighter at the horizon. This occurs ‘most’ of the time, but not every time in nature.

Mountains, hills, rocks, shrubbery, rooftops, fields, meadows, table tops, lakes, ponds, etc, will generally …. be lighter on top, mid tone middle, darker at the bottom/base.Darker tones at the base will anchor the shape down, preventing a sense of  ‘flatness’ and looking like its ‘floating.’

Always, look before starting to paint, for the light source direction. Jot it down right onto the canvas/paper so that it keeps ‘reminding’ you where to put light, mid, darks. Each shape needs to have tonal variation; exceptions may be a distant mountain range etc.

As you draw your shapes prior to painting keep in mind – Light, Mid, Dark Tone – within that shape, to ensure adequate tonal values. Bear in mind also, the painting needs to read as a united whole and that having clearly visible Light, Mid, Dark tones throughout will help to give the painting better design and balance.


Published by debiriley

The act of creation, in any media is a fascinating and magical process. I simply love to create. Expressing in color, line, tone, texture - as if, they were words upon a page. Creating a uniquely me, interpretation. Enjoy More of my "one-of-a-kind" expressive art at and,

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