Project 3 – Exercise 2: Tonal study on a dark ground

I am wondering about the term imprimatura mentioned in the course materials. Looking it up I found that it means an even toning in a certain color of the support. At times it get confused with underpainting. Also the imprimatura doesn’t need to cover the whole support to leave some areas intentionally open. The meaning of underpainting goes more with the term grisaille where a full tonal image if laid on the support (or the imprimatura). This acts the foundation for subsequent glazes or overlays. Both could be done transparent or opaque.

For this exercise I will use the term imprimatura in its original meaning. I will work on two boards: one in middle tone and one in dark.

Stefan513593 - Project 3 - Exercise 2 - middle ground

Stefan513593 – Project 3 – Exercise 2 – middle ground

Some contextual inspiration:

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1964)
– ‘Still-life with Lemons, Oranges and Rose’, 1633
Oil on canvas (60 x 107 cm)
[Online image] Available from: Wikimedia commons click here [accessed 25 March 2016]




Johnny Lipp
‘Chiaroscuro is love
B/W photograph
[Online image] [accessed 25 March 2016]




My plan:

  1. Using the same still life scene as in exercise 1.
  2. Preparing two boards in middle and dark value.
  3. Evaluation of the tonal value scale I would like to use
  4. Making the tonal studies

With this set I start my work.

1) See Ex1

click here

2) My prepared grounds

I used acrylic paint for the sake of quicker drying time before applying subsequent layers. I used similar colors as from previous exercise (ultramarine, indigo, payne’s greys, and white) to mix a middle and a dark tonal value ground. Image shows the prepared grounds alongside the still life setup.

Stefan513593 - Project 3 - Exercise 2 -- grounds

Stefan513593 – Project 3 – Exercise 2 — grounds

3) My value scales

I am trying to use a rather low key value scale for the dark background. A kind of tenebrism for a more dramatic effect. And I will use full 7 scale for the middle ground (as Ex 1).

To have a better understanding on how to work on dark background I made a rough sketch with charcoal primed paper in my sketchbook and rubbing out the positive shapes.  This would a kind of image I want to achieve in oil on my dark background.

Stefan513593 - Project 3 - Exercise 2 -- tonal value pre-study

Stefan513593 – Project 3 – Exercise 2 — tonal value pre-study


4) My tonal studies

  • Dark background: 

Trying to keep the background (right side) uncovered and as a flat contrasting element against the more rendered objects. I worked this time less impasto and more with turp diluted washes (foreground, left side, glass, bottle). I applied more paint where I felt the forms (vase) would benefit from a more opaques paint. I started with the lightest areas first and moved on to render the forms further with mid tone values.

Stefan513593 - Project 3 - Exercise 2 -- tonal value study on dark ground

Stefan513593 – Project 3 – Exercise 2 — tonal value study on dark ground

=> I was not quite successful in making a low key painting on dark ground. Something like this image (in Photoshop darkened image) would be better:Stefan513593_P3_Ex2-1_low key

– The dark ground was not dark enough.
– Photograph not showing the right values, original looks a bit darker actually.
– I was too much involved in rendering the forms and too much work in mid tone areas.
– Too bright light in the scene.

Makes me think more how I would like to tackle low key paintings in the future by more attention to above topics.


  • Middle ground:

I used this time a palette knife or the background to obtain a different visual effect. Using the knife helped me too loose up and to get less concerned about details. It is less uniform, looks rather like a curtain than a smooth surface. I left the middle ground uncovered in the lower section (table) as a point of reference (tonal value) for the objects and contrasting with the background pattern (flat versus vibrating). A more fun way to explore negative space..

Stefan513593 - Project 3 - Exercise 2 -- tonal value study on middle ground

Stefan513593 – Project 3 – Exercise 2 — tonal value study on middle ground


Comparing my tonal studies side by side:

(white, dark, and middle ground)

=> Limitations to be considered: photographs do not show accurate tonal values and colors, light conditions while taking the pictures were not the same.

For both exercises I worked on the same still life scene, same light source and direction, and the same colors. All studies were done wet-in-wet (besides a dried ground). The main purpose was to see what the color of the ground will do.

  1. White ground: full tonal scale applied, rendering of believable forms, working mainly in positive space.
  2. Dark ground: working in washes (wet in wet), setting highlights first and moving on toward mid-tone values, leaving part of dark ground uncovered
  3. Middle ground: using a palette knife for negative space, leaving part of middle ground uncovered,

=> I tend to prefer the middle ground, as it allowed me to loosen up my painting approach. Also the flat visual effect of uncovered ground makes the picture more appealing. Working on white ground needs good discernment  where to apply which values correctly. Working on dark ground would have been more successful with pushing a low key painting with a darker background, more courage to place highlights and a few mid tones areas only. Although I like the visual effect of applied washes on the dark ground.


  • Working on dark ground can make the objects really stand out. Especially it would be very intriguing when working on backlight scenes. Reminds me of the luminous and backlight scenes painted by Silvia Gertsch in oil behind glass (see Schaffeld, 25 Nov 2015)
  • Working on middle ground worked well as the middle tonal value helped to use it as a point of reference on the tonal value scale. This painting process is moving smoother and faster.
  • Working on dark ground enabled me to work more with washes. I am not sure why this is.
  • Using other tools than brushes (knife) helps to loosen up my approach.
  • Leaving part of ground uncovered makes the picture more intriguing.
  • Pushing the limits and contrasts (flat/rendered, low/high key, black/white contrast at one edge of a form) and leaving more space of illusion (merging positive and negative space with similar tonal values = lost edges) does make a painting more vivid and convincing.

Next time:

  • Working on low key: considering tonal values I want to apply and check the scene through more preparatory studies. Research more what and how other are working.
  • Taken photographs: Overcoming issues with non-accurate tonal values and colors with photographs. How to photograph glossy oil paintings better.
  • Somehow I forgot my contextual learnings from an exhibition visit – paintings of Kotscha Reist (click here). I need to practice reduced tonal values painting more !


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