My art work

Tone and colour, Day 1

I am a botanic artist. Watercolour is the medium that most botanic artists use because it translucent. It allows the light to bounce through the paint, giving a luminosity and depth. Many artists handle watercolour like masters (or mistresses, as so many of us are women).

Not me. Give me a pencil and I can draw you a garlic bulb. Finding tone with a pencil is wonderful. Finding tone/hue with watercolours is often a battle. 

So, when I saw a workshop on tone, hue and colour mixing I was there! 3 days of painting — bliss 😀 (It certainly helped to know that it was the first week back at school for the year. In my old life as a primary school teacher I would have been there, distributing books and pencils and organising seating arrangements. Now I was painting in books, using pencils and not giving a toss about who sat where!)

As an added bonus the workshop was taken by Helen Burrows, very talented botanic artist and teacher. She is a superb painter of camellias.

In this series of posts, I thought that you might like to see a little of behind the scenes of a painting.

We began the day twisting ribbon, that very decorative ribbon with wire edges, into interesting curvy shapes. Then Helen spoke to us about grey scales. She was horrified when a couple of us, including me, not only hadn’t ever done a grey scale, but didn’t really know what one was. I know that you will know, but let me explain it to the others. 🙂

Tone is the amount of light that falls on an object. Think of that art room cliche, a spherical object, such as an orange. If the light is coming in from the top left where it hits, top left, will be the highlights. The bottom right of the shape will be the darkest (except for a sliver of reflected light….). In between those two areas will be various tones from the very light to the very dark, and a range of mid-tines between. Understanding those tones and translating them to paper will give the orange its 3D effect.

A grey scale becomes a very useful tool. Because I had never done one before, I didn’t realise how useful. This photo is of my grey scale. As you can see, 10 is as dark as your pencil can get and 1 is the white of the paper. You can also see that there is not a lot of difference in my scale between 3, 4, 5 and 6. Interestingly, I now realise that this is an issue in my drawings too. My mid-tones (3, 4, 5 and 6) are often very similar in my work. Having a grey scale handy will be a good reference.

Grey scale for an 8B pencil
Grey scale for an 8B pencil

On to our ribbons. Helen asked us to use our grey scales to create tonal drawings of them. As I said before, I love pencil, and so was able to get right into this task. I was pleased with my drawing. I think it has  drama and life.

Tonal drawing (Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)
Tonal drawing (Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)

Then we moved onto mixing a neutral tint for an underpainting. And that’s where things started to go wrong!

A neutral tint is, Helen explained, made of the colours that you would be using in the painting, mixed so that they become interesting greys. Interesting greys?! The others were coming up with beautiful colours, soft and sensuous. Mine were not working! They weren’t grey, they weren’t soft. It didn’t help that I was using cerulean, a blue that is notorious for granulating on the paper. Sometimes that effect is wonderful, sometimes, like now, just annoying!

I applied it to another drawing of the ribbon. This is what I ended up with 😦  although I added the rose pink later in an attempt to improve it. It didn’t. I had no lovely soft greys, no lovely soft washes. Just clunky lumps of colour.

Grrrr (Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)
Grrrr (Photo and image copyright: Anne Lawson, 2014)

At this point I may have looked like a middle aged (hmmm, maybe slightly older!) woman, sitting at a table, battling painting. In my mind I was a child, rolling around on the floor, having a good old tantrum ~ “Mine’s not working!! Everyone else can do it!! I don’t like this!! I don’t want to play any more!! I want to go home!!!”

But, after promising myself the adult equivalent of a lolly (a glass of wine ~ at home 🙂 ) I picked myself off the mental floor and started to work out what I was doing and not doing. While I don’t usually go to the extreme of a mental tantrum, as I am painting I often go through a time when I feel that it is not going right ~ just not jelling into what the finished work should be. Usually I work my way through that and then, at some time the painting just pops into place.

This ribbon was doomed from the outset. No amount of work was going to make it all right, but that’s okay. I think that often we are so focussed on the final product (“This has to be a perfect painting/novel/poem/etching etc”) that we forget that playing and having fun is such an important part. And you learn through play too.

So I left the room on the first day with a smile, only slightly nervous about Day 2. Did Helen really say we were going to paint ROSES? Roses are tricky. Roses are for grown up painters, not for me.

8 replies on “Tone and colour, Day 1”

I enjoyed this Anne. I Am glad that you are getting so much from your workshop. I hope that the rest of it goes well. If it’s any consolation, painting a rose with a neutral tint tonal study underneath, takes the worry out of it! I am sure it will go well.


Thanks Gaynor. Your comment about the neutral tint undertone fits with what Helen has been teaching us. I usually lay down the under wash as a darker hue of the colour I am using. So I will have to experiment with a neutral tint. A while ago a tutor showed me how to use a purple pencil and then wash over the top if it. I guess it is the same concept.


It’s funny you should mention the purple. I do a lot of coloured pencil work and often find that I use purple under greens and a very pale mauve under yellow ( instead of grey equivalent to a neutral tint). In effect, as the purple is made up,of blue and red (2 primaries), it is used as the shadow of the colour on the opposite side of the colour week ( often the third primary).

It’s funny, I wasn’t too interested in the theory previously, but as time moves on, the theory is very useful at times.

I too found that at one time my work was rather tone-less and realised that to get excitement in my pictures I needed to do something about it. You are lucky having a tutor who is teaching you all,of this stuff.


I am very lucky. This workshop was only for 3 days, but we have a very good community of botanic artists in Melbourne, talented tutors and so generous with their knowledge.

But I agree that theory becomes more interesting as time goes on. I suspect it is because you know enough to know that you DON’T know enough! The universe seems to tell us when it is time to learn something. I am delving into colour now, even looking up pigment numbers! I have just finished rearranging my palette.

Where did you go to learn about excitement in your drawings?


I still struggle, but I noticed that one botanical artist in particular was very active in relation to her contrasts, I booked a workshop with her and absorbed some of the tips she could give me. Initially she found it awkward when I booked the workshop, but found out quickly that I was there to learn.
Since then I have seen another artists work that I admire and who knows, when I get time I might book with her too.

I think its all about knowing where you want to go, defining how you need to get there and dealing with it. Trouble is, once you get ‘there’ the boundaries have moved again! I think that is why we carry on being so interested in what we do. The next picture is always going to be the challenge to rectify the problem you had with the last one.

I keep on saying to myself that it is the mistakes I feel I make, that will keep me going. As soon as it becomes plain sailing, I’m afraid I will lose interest. Strange isn’t it?


“Trouble is, once you get ‘there’ the boundaries have moved again! I think that is why we carry on being so interested in what we do. The next picture is always going to be the challenge to rectify the problem you had with the last one.”

That is just so true! And as you say, the problem solving is what keeps our interest. If it was easy we would get bored.


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