A Warm Undertone

88-warm-surface.jpgIn representational landscape painting, one of the most universal practices is to begin the painting on a warm brownish undertone. Historically, artists worked either on a grisaille (gray) or burnt brown earth tone. Working on a toned surface helped to create a balance between overly light paintings produced on a white surface and overly dark paintings begun on a near black surface.

Since painting is a visual exercise, we respond to what we see in front of us. The same mark that appears dark when made on a light surface will appear light on a dark surface. We see the mark in context and adjust accordingly. By beginning with a middle-value toned surface, painters had better control over the value range in the painting. Color also played a big part in their choices. This visual phenomenon is referred to as “simultaneous contrast” (which I wrote about in a previous blog). In simple terms, it implies that everything is affected by what it’s next to. It appears to take on the opposite of what surrounds it. Something looks lighter on dark, darker on light, warmer on something cool, and cooler on something warm. If you want a pinker face, wear a green shirt. Try it!

Due to simultaneous contrast, we will produce a warmer painting when working on a warm toned surface. Not because of the warm tone showing through, although it doesn’t hurt, but because every mark we make will look cooler and we will naturally gravitate to a warmer choice of the hue. When the surface is completely covered, without any of the undertone showing through, a warmer color harmony will have been produced. There are scientific and psychological reasons we are more comfortable with warmer paintings. The one thing that threads a landscape together is “shared light.” Daylight light is much warmer than we often think. We become overly concerned with local color, ignoring the effect of light throughout the scene. Even the greenest and bluest of spring days are saturated with light. I am not advocating overly warm/hot renditions of the landscape but a heightened sensitivity to the prevailing temperature of the light.

We also feel calmer and more secure in a warm environment. This is why warm paintings out-sell cool paintings. Good examples of cool, green, blue landscapes can be found in the works of English artist John Constable, who painted on a burnt red/brown toned surface. His work influenced the Barbizon School of French landscape painting which became the foundation of plein air painting as we know it today.

If you are finding your landscapes to be lacking a natural sense of daylight, try working on a warm surface. The sky will still be blue and the trees green but the harmony of the completed painting will be biased by warmth, producing a more natural appearing landscape. It really is all about the light!

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4 thoughts on “A Warm Undertone

  1. oceansong

    This applies also to watercolors. I usually tone sections of the paper and, often, the entire paper before beginning the actual painting. Love Richard McKinley’s work!

  2. Robert Sloan

    This is fascinating. I know I’ve always enjoyed working on toned surfaces and this makes a lot of what happens make sense. I like a muted green many times when I’m doing people or flowers and landscapes can be on almost anything — but will come out warmer even if I cover the paper entirely.

    Thanks for clearing that up. I sometimes wondered if I was wasting money by using tinted Colourfix and then covering the whole surface. You just made it make sense and I’ll go on using my favorite colors. I see so many good landscapes done on Terra Cotta that I’m thinking that might be an indispensible hue of primer.