Project 3 – Exercise 1: Tonal study one white ground

This exercise tackles the question how to render believable forms in a range of tonal values in a monochrome painting.

Considering chiaroscuro means to use light and dark tonal values to depict the effect of light and shadow on objects. The setting would be a simple still-life with simple objects.

Stefan513593 - Project 3 - Exercise 2 - white ground

Stefan513593 – Project 3 – Exercise 2 – white ground

Some contextual inspiration:

Giorgio Morandi (1890 – 1964) – a series of still lifes

MORANDI_GIORGIO_Still life_1957

Juliette Aristides
– ‘Still life,’
[Online image] Available from: [accessed 20 Mar 2016]
=> classical painting method with rendering of reflections and background




An image could be made as a low-key or a high-key picture. Low-key means all main values are at the dark side with only a few highlights at the other end of the scale. High-key means all values are the light side and only a few areas are at the other end.

For this exercise I decided to make a full scale painting, means to I will use white and dark payne’s grey at the opposite values on the scale.

My plan:
  1. Find objects and set up a still life
  2. Make thumbnail studies to find good and interesting composition with some tonal value studies
  3. Make a full tonal study in charcoal
  4. Make a preliminary tonal value sketch in chosen oil paint
  5. Make the tonal study in oil on white board (40x30cm)

With this set I started my work.

1) My still life setting:IMG_0263

I chose a blue support and black background that I thought would work well for a monochrome study and to avoid any complex color issues that could distract me.

2) My sketchbook thumbnails studies to find a still life setting and first evaluation of tonal values (each around A7):

Form those studies I chose one with three objects with different surfaces as it appealed to me as most interesting (slight upwards viewpoint), challenging (glass) but also simple (three slightly overlapping objects).

3) Tonal value study in charcoal – defining values:

Here I wanted to explore more the tonal value range in charcoal. I used willow and compressed charcoal. The latter as it gives a darker black. Challenging were the reflection on the glass and the vertical light strip of reflected light in the background.

Stefan513593 - Project 3 - Exercise 1 -- tonal value study

Stefan513593 – Project 3 – Exercise 1 — tonal value study

Based on my charcoal study and the still life in front of me I evaluated further the tonal values. I decided for a 7 scale as it seemed to me most practical (knowing that there are also 5 and 9 scale mentioned in instruction books).

in charcoal:


in oil (mix of ultramarine, indigo, payne’s grey, and zinc white):


evaluation of still life in value scale:


Stefan513593 - Project 3 - Exercise 1 -- tonal value scaling

Stefan513593 – Project 3 – Exercise 1 — tonal value scaling

4) Quick tonal sketch on a 7 value scale in monochrome oil paint (mix ultramarine, indigo, pains’ grey, and white on board 18×24 cm)

Stefan513593 - Project 3 - Exercise 1 -- tonal value pre-study

Stefan513593 – Project 3 – Exercise 1 — tonal value pre-study

=> I had to adjust the values as the values in the background is actually darker. The same for the values on the glass. An illusion? preconceived notion as glass reflection should be light?. I felt the others were ok. I re-checked my initial oil paint values scale and adjusted to have a more even gradation. The initial one was too much on the dark side.



5) Tonal study in oil on board (30 x40 cm). I adjusted the composition slightly to my initial thoughts to leave more open space above and to the right of the objects.


Stefan513593 - Project 3 - Exercise 1 -- tonal value study

Stefan513593 – Project 3 – Exercise 1 — tonal value study


  • Putting more efforts in preparation helps tremendously in getting the painting smoothly and rapidly done.
  • To apply the tonal values side by side and only blend them together with a dry brush would be the preferred option (see Project 2 – Exercise 3). At times I overworked and messed up the paint, thinking too much about accuracy – not loosen up enough.
  • Working on white background means to have already a good understanding about the tonal values and the distribution in the image. Point of reference are my tonal studies in charcoal done before (step 3)
  • Overall I am pleased with my approach to the tonal study. I worked in steps to ensure that I am not missing any key elements in the context of this exercise.
  • Comparing my oil sketch in step 4 and my tonal study in step 5 , I have the feeling that the quicker done sketch has already all the key elements included (although still some tonal and form mistakes). This make me think about the time spent and what is really required to get a visual message across.


Next time:

  • Work bolder and not mess up already applied paint. Take more discerned decisions on applying correct tonal values in right areas. Double check with scene in front of me.
  • Working impasto still gave me a challenge on applying different paints (values) on top of each other. I have to work more on technique I believe.
  • I would have loved to use glazes on the glass for a different look. But considering scope of this exercise and time (drying) and speed I worked wet-in-wet only.
  • The forms are not completely correct (bottle is tilted slightly) were accuracy needs to get more attention. But this was not the scope of this exercise anyhow.
  • Composition: I feel there is too much open space at the top.

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