Why and How to Color-Tone Your Canvas Before Painting

Updated on September 6, 2019
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Toning a canvas is a great way to get rid of white space so you can dive right into the painting process.
Toning a canvas is a great way to get rid of white space so you can dive right into the painting process. | Source

Why Do Artists Paint on Toned Canvases?

An immaculate white canvas can be very intimidating. It is difficult to just dive right in and put a mark on its blank, even surface, but this is the first obstacle every artist needs to overcome before any painting can take place. The best way to start is to cover your entire canvas with thinned colored paint before beginning your piece. This process is referred to as toning your canvas.

Reasons to Color-Tone Your Canvas

  • Beginning a painting with a ground color in place helps speed up the painting process.
  • Since all white is covered during toning, starting the painting is less intimidating.
  • Coloring a canvas ensures the painting's mid-tone is established from the start.
  • The ground tone can help unify the final composition if you let specks of it peek through in your finished piece.

Why Not Paint on a White Canvas?

Generally, paintings do not look complete until every bit of canvas is covered with paint. Any remaining white space can detract significantly from the piece's impact.

Letting portions of the white canvas show through not only makes a painting look unfinished, but may also disrupt the viewer's attention and detract from the actual highlights you've painted into the scene.

A toned canvas can add vitality and sparkle to the final work and also helps harmonize the final painting.

— Kevin Macpherson
The fur of this brown dog is made of shades of orange and red. I toned it a bright, light green to create some contrast with the dog's color and harmony with the grass in the background. Acrylic on canvas.
The fur of this brown dog is made of shades of orange and red. I toned it a bright, light green to create some contrast with the dog's color and harmony with the grass in the background. Acrylic on canvas. | Source

How to Tone Your Canvas

Take a large splash of color and spread it all over the canvas. Cover the surface completely, and don't worry too much about the color or the look of the brushstrokes. The paint does not need to be evenly blended. Irregularity and variety in your paint stokes and thickness will add visual interest to the finished piece.

Toning Tip

When toning your canvas, thin your chosen paint to a milky consistency. Add water to acrylics and thinner to oils to accomplish this.

What Color Should Your Ground Tone Be?

You can tone your canvas using any color and value you like. You can even use multiple colors. Traditional base colors include yellow ochre or burnt sienna—these are highly recommended for beginners due to their versatility.

However, when choosing your ground colors, try not to be too predictable. Experiment with a wide array of complementary, harmonious, bright, and muted colors. Different bases can affect the overall look and feel of a painting, and experimentation is the best way to find winning color choices that suit your personal style.

When using something more adventurous or dominant, such as bright red, try spreading it thin. Let some of the white of the canvas come through to make it less intense. You can also switch between thicker and thinner paint as you tone different parts of your canvas.

Color Selection Tip

Choose a tone that complements the color of your painting's subject. If you plan to paint a skyscape, for instance, consider toning with a bright red for contrast.

What Value Should Your Ground Tone Be?

I usually aim for a medium-value tone, but exceptions can be made—sometimes they make the composition more interesting!

As rule of thumb, if you want to tone with more than one color or value, I recommend using staining that has the same values as the final design. Let the ground make your job easier. It is simpler to paint a light object on a light value and a dark object on a dark value. Try to let the ground be seen without compromising the visual unity of the mass.

This acrylic landscape painting was toned with orange to complement the green of the vegetation and to warm up the overall feeling of the picture. Acrylic on canvas.
This acrylic landscape painting was toned with orange to complement the green of the vegetation and to warm up the overall feeling of the picture. Acrylic on canvas. | Source

Complementary Ground Tones

Complementary colors are opposite one another on the color wheel. These color pairs brighten each other visually when used in tandem or placed side by side. Toning with colors that are complementary to the intended color scheme of your painting will enhance its drama and richness.

Using complementary combinations in large applications can be very tricky as they often look kind of garish. They can, however, work extremely well together when one is dominant and the other is used very sparingly, like a ground that peeks through only here and there.

How to Apply and Acrylic Colored Ground

Harmonious Ground Tones

Harmonious colors are those that are next to each other on the color wheel and have some visual characteristics in common. If you prefer, you can tone your canvas with colors that are harmonious with, rather than complementary to, the colors of your intended subject.

Some examples of harmonious color sets are:

  • yellow, yellow-orange, and orange.
  • yellow-green, green, and blue-green.

Similarly, you could choose to use only cool colors or warm colors. Toning with a color that is harmonious to the hue of your painting's subject creates a sense of balance, order, and tranquility. However, it will produce little color-contrast and visual interest. When toning with a harmonious color, it may be a good idea to create excitement by emphasizing value differences and using textural strokes.

This black French bulldog is very feisty, so I chose an orange ground to portray vitality and to contrast the blues and purples of his fur. Acrylic on canvas.
This black French bulldog is very feisty, so I chose an orange ground to portray vitality and to contrast the blues and purples of his fur. Acrylic on canvas. | Source

Advantages of Bright Ground Tones

Brightly colored stains will:

  • boost any muted or earthy paint colors.
  • allow you to explore the boundaries of how colors interact when placed next to each other.
  • evoke a particular mood or personality.
  • come in very handy to brighten up a gray, rainy day.
  • appear overly-dominant in the early stages of painting, but will later blend and interact with the layers above, creating a more balanced painting.

How to Paint Over Your Tone

Allowing touches of a brightly colored ground to show on the finished painting can enhance the overall richness of the picture, particularly if the ground color is complementary to the surface color.

As you build up your painting, more and more of the ground will get covered, but try to leave behind small fragments. This will provide a visual link between the different parts of the painting.

If you end up completely covering the ground color in some areas, you can always paint some small details using the ground hue on the surface later on to achieve that same sense of unity.

The Ground Tone Is Your Painting's Foundation

When choosing your ground color, it is very important to assess how the finished painting will look. Harmonious combinations are not very stimulating, and the viewer may lose interest quickly. On the other hand, clashing colors may get overstimulating, creating a chaotic and confused result.

Focus on value contrasts to create interest, and make sure you have a dominant color and a more minor player in each piece. Good luck, and happy toning!

Do you tone your canvases before painting on them?

Do you tone your canvas?

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Questions & Answers

  • When I am toning the canvas, is it recommended to paint a ground color that is complementary to the focal point or is it better to pick the same color as the focal point?

    I like both options, either picking a ground color that is the same of the focal point or one that is its complementary, you can achieve a great effect both ways. It depends what you are after.

    When in doubt, I would do a couple of color studies and see which one I like the best.

  • I would like to try toning a canvas but I'm not allowed to us turps since it is toxic and smells bad. Is there a way to tone it without using turps? Can I use nothing to thin the paint? And how do I do it? Thank you

    In my experience, it's better if the toning is thin, so if you are using oils and can't thin with solvent, maybe you can consider toning with acrylics thinned with water. Oil is just fine on top of acrylic, the opposite would not work.

    Another option would be to tone with oil paint right out of the tube, without any thinner, and let it dry for a few days, or until dry to the tough before you add more layers.

  • I am painting a portrait with warm yellow tones. What would be a good color for the tones ground?

    Maybe starting with a yellow ochre or burnt sienna ground will help.

  • I am working on a large canvas trying to create a beach scene from a photograph that incorporates a lot of red-orange in the ocean (no blue) and at the horizon. The sky fades to lighter tones of red-orange, and finally to a lighter shade with the sun going down, and a vanilla mixture with red-orange. What color would I use for the ground? If a complementary color, which one?

    I would tone the canvas with colors that make your job easier. For the sky, a light, bright version of the main color, probably an orange. For the water a darker version of the main color. Maybe a dark red.

    Then you paint the color of things over the ground. Make sure that right where the sun is setting you make it so light, and so bright that you almost want to squint looking straight into it. When painting te surface of the water, I usually alternate some cooler colors and some warmer colors, letting the ground peak through.

  • I haven't tried toning yet, but I'm super new too. I am planning a stormy purple sky with lightning from a reference photo. It's almost all shades of purple fading into a light violet /pink with the lightning I want a complimentary yellow as it's kind of nod to a sports team. And finally, some trees that are black. What color might you suggest for the ground?

    Since the sky you are going to paint is mainly purple, I would paint the canvas a mid-value purple. Then, while still wet, you can wipe off the purple where the lightening will be, and live that area lighter or stain it yellow. I hope this helps. You can also stain a darker purple where the trees are going to be.

© 2018 Robie Benve


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    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      4 days ago from Ohio

      Hi Nelvia, toning the canvas does speed up the process quite a bit, and avoids those annoying white bits of unpainted canvas showing up at the end. Thanks a lot for you comment.

    • profile image


      8 days ago

      Sigh, something I should do more of. Thanks for the color ideas and the reminder as it does speed up the process and provides those rich mid-tones.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      8 weeks ago from Ohio

      Hi Ravi, for an ocean scene, I would tone the area where the water will be with a color that is similar in value to the end result, maybe a little darker, and has deep turquoise-blue hints. If you use phtalo blue make sure it's dry before you paint over, or it will take over even in unwanted ways.

    • profile image

      Ravi Rao 

      8 weeks ago

      What color should the underpainting be ideally for Turquoise-blue waves scene that I intend to paint in oil.

    • profile image

      Luisa Hunt 

      23 months ago

      Seeing your paintings and how you handled the ground color, letting it show though really helped me understand the concept. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Thank you Liz, I'm so glad to hear that you found my article helpful and informative. As a self-taught artist, I like to share what I learn about painting, and I'm always thrilled when I hear that others learn something from my writings. Thanks!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Claudia, thanks a lot for stopping by and taking the time to leave such a nice comment.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      2 years ago from UK

      This is a really helpful and informative article. I've learned a lot from reading this and the illustrations are great.

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Claudia Mitchell 

      2 years ago

      I always enjoy your articles since I know next to nothing about painting. Your scene with the creek is absolutely stunning. I love the sky.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi galleryofgrace, I'm not sure how to read your comment. Do you really see this as a self-promotional article? I shared a few of my works to show examples of what I was explaining.

    • galleryofgrace profile image


      2 years ago from Virginia

      Good job promoting your own art work. Wonder how long the rest of us can get by with it!


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