How to tone a canvas

How to Tone a Canvas for Oil and Acrylic Painting

You can use this technique to tone many different types of surfaces. For example paper, wooden panel or canvas.

A toned surface, which is also called an imprimatura, is a stain of colour applied to a primed canvas or panel.

It is just one way to prepare you surface before you start painting. It provides painters with a transparent toned ground to work on. Artists often choose to complete this stage after creating a drawing in charcoal.

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Why tone the surface?

An imprimatura has several functions that can improve your painting.

Firstly, it seals your under drawing, making it easier to trace over the lines when you come to paint the colours and tones.

When light hits the painting, it reflects through the layers creating tonal optical unity. It can enhance the luminosity and colourful effects of the finished piece. 

Transparent glazes of colour that allow the transparent pigment of the imprimatura shine through over the gesso ground will be more luminous than any opaque paint mixture. Each layer is backlit by the previous pigment.

Imprimatura creates a mid tone, making it easier to establish dark and light colour values and for the artist to see the colours they are using in relation to one another more clearly.

The most widely used pigments for imprimatura are neutral colours. The artist will choose either a warm or cool toned pigment depending on what they want the undertones in the painting to be.

How to choose a pigment for imprimatura

Old masters traditionally used warm earth colours such as burnt umber as their imprimatura layer. But it’s also good to subvert norms and do something unique.

What is the overall effect you are trying to achieve with your painting? If you want to create warmth, use a pigment with a red undertone. If you want to emphasise the cool colours in your painting use a pigment with a blue undertone. 

Painting with a pigment that has a yellow undertone can give the appearance of luminosity and natural light. Colours like Yellow Ochre work well for this.

Imprimatura, as well as providing luminosity in certain pieces, can also be used to emphasise and deepen areas of darkness and shadow. Use a dark brown or dark cool grey pigment for this.

Tone a canvas: Caravaggio
Caravaggio: Saint Jerome Writing

Bear in mind that oil paintings become more translucent with age. So an imprimatura will show through (after hundreds of years). Look at Caravaggio’s paintings—he often painted with a dark, almost opaque imprimatura and his works have become progressively darker with age. This is a reason for why dark opaque layers of paint should be avoided for imprimatura, as colours can become lost to them.

Pigments to use to tone a canvas

The benefit of using earth colours for the first layer is that they dry quickly. You can choose any colour, however, although it’s ideal if the pigment is transparent. 

Burnt Sienna gives a rusty orange effect. This is good for creating warmth in a piece and contrast beneath paintings with many blue shades, such as seascapes.

Yellow Ochre is good for creating light in the painting. Think of golden hour light. 

Burnt Umber is a warm brown, but has a slightly duller appearance than other pigments, making it suitable for paintings with low light.

Raw Umber is a brown that has greenish undertones. It would be a good option for painting plants, moss covered trees, or rolling hills on a rainy day.

Ultramarine Blue can be used for creating cool undertones, particularly effective in winter scenes and marine art.

Magenta can be used to liven up your painting. This works brilliantly under forest scenes and highly saturated sunset pieces.

These are just some examples, to learn more about the detailed topic, read about how to choose pigments for imprimatura

What do you need to tone a canvas?

How to Create the Imprimatura

Step 1: Choose your pigment

The most difficult part is actually deciding on the pigment for your toned ground. 

When you’re first starting out painting, it’ll take trial and error to find toned grounds that work with the kinds of paintings you want to make. 

Test them on canvas paper first so that you can be sure your combinations will work in the way you want them to, to create luminosity and depth rather than muddy colours. It’s much more difficult to turn back when you’ve already painted the colour onto the surface you want to work on.

I usually keep these tests in a sketchbook and come back to them at later dates to inspire different aspects of new works. A combination that I’ve decided won’t work for one particular painting might be perfect for another. You’ll be able to find some unique colour harmonies from testing in this way.

Step 2: Mix the Pigment with Solvent

Generously dilute the paint with solvent. You want a consistency that is like ink. It will be very runny. You want to make sure that the bottom layer of the painting is the layer that has been thinned with the most solvent. We’re following the layering process by the fat over lean rule.

When using solvent, make sure to work in an area that is well ventilated so that the fumes can dissipate better.

Step 3: Cover your surface

You could do what Rembrandt did and apply dark brown imprimatura to areas of the canvas that you know you will have dark shadows. Or you could apply a very thin even coat—creating a wash.

Being quite gestural at this stage with the application of paint can add interest and liveliness to the painting from the offset.

Step 4: Wipe away sections to create the illusion of light

From the under drawing or reference, you should be able to see where the areas of tonal contrast are. You can further emphasise the light and dark areas by removing wet paint to demonstrate where the light source and passages are in your piece.

Wait until the whole canvas is completely dry to the touch before you progress to your next layer, otherwise the colours will muddy together.

Tone a canvas, imprimatura technique: Pin it!

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