Toning Canvas

If you’re a painter and have been exposed to many other working artists (in workshops, plein air events, etc) you’ll notice some commonalities in how we paint, and certainly lots of individual differences. One significant difference I’ve noticed to the practice of toning your canvas. Most plein air artists agree that a start white canvas working outdoors (even in the shade) is very hard on the eyes. It also detracts–I think–from one my goals, which is freedom. I want to be loose! Have fun! I don’t want to see bits of stark white showing up here and there. It’s a distraction.

Artists have solved this problem by toning their canvas, either at their painting site or in the studio. For the uninitiated: toning is the practice of deadening the white of a canvas with a color, usually in a light to mid-value range. Toning on site has it’s advantages: you can select the undertone to match the scene more closely. However, the disadvantage I see is that I believe it usually results in slightly more grayish, muddy colors. And I love color.

What color to tone? This is a rather difficult question, there are so many exceptions, and by the way, some artists only tone one color all the time. I vary my tone. Ted Georschner tones with a Yellow Ocher; Ken Auster tones with a medium value gray. Both undeniably master artists, so there is no right or wrong answer. Its what you’re comfortable with.

I tone an equal number of linen canvas boards with Yellow Ocher and with Gray. I’ve studied with both Ted and Ken, and I’ve seen the value in both–depending upon the circumstances. Basically, I use a Grey tone on paintings where the light is Grey-ish (eg, night scenes, cloudy days, etc). I use a Yellow Ocher tone when I want a strong feeling of sun light. The details of two different paintings below demonstrate each approach. The gray I use is a Golden Acrylic Gesso, and I mix the gray myself using a combination of Paynes Gray and Cadmium Red (both acrylic, of course). The Yellow Ocher is Classic Artist Oils, right out of the tube.

This is a detail from a snow scene in which I used a gray toned board. It was quite cloudy, and there was a lot of gray in the picture. Made life easier.
This is also a snow scene detail, but there was bright sunlight strong. The bits of Yellow showing through the canvas add a sense of light.

So, what’s right for you? You’ll never know, until you experiment. Happy Painting!

PS. A toned canvas must be dry thoroughly before you apply paint, because it can easily wipe off. I dry my toned canvases (and even finished paintings) in my oven. Don’t laugh! I have about a dozen pilot lights in this old Wedgwood stove, may as well use that energy for some purpose. I leave them in for a day or two (no more, otherwise the boards can warp).

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