top of page


Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Whatever your current experience level, getting to grips with this principle will see you improving your watercolour painting very quickly!

We are of course talking about Tonal Values. In simple terms; how light or dark an area, or part of a subject is. Whatever your experience level, understanding tonal values is absolutely crucial, and aside from the actual nature of the medium itself, I would say they are most important principles of painting..whatever the subject and whatever the style of painting...

Tonal values give us the composition, light and shadow, form, depth, atmosphere, mood and more... As well as being the absolute foundation of any painting, from photo realistic to fully abstract, they are also the glue that holds a painting together! Get your tonal values working in painting and you can literally do whatever you like with the colour, the brushstrokes, the style, and pretty much everything else... ..and it will still be a successful painting! Better still, whilst the most important principle, tone does not have to complicated!

In fact understanding tonal values can be incredibly straight forward. It is as much about learning to look as it is how we paint.

A few pointers and tips can go a really long way, so read on for some of these! In the Watercolour Masterclass Series we will take a deep dive into really understanding Tonal Values. You can checkout further details and book your space now (this Masterclass Series is only running once a year. Starts May '23)


How can we see tonal values? I often imagined my subject as being in monotone (black, white and grey), or even turn your image into monotone to really help! The two extreme ends of the scale are easy….

  • Black & very dark greys = dark

  • White and very light greys = light

Where things can get more confusing, and where we can get lost as painters, is in that huge broad range of greys, the mid-tones. In fact I believe there are literally 100s if not 1000s of potential greys, so how n earth do we paint all these?? – the answer is, we don’t! We simplify our subject into as few a values as possible. So when looking at mid-tones I have generally in the past, particularly working with oils & acrylics, found thinking of areas as either being a lighter mid-tone or a darker mid-tone to be extremely helpful…. Therefore; any given area must then fit into one of the 4 categories - light, dark, light mid-tone or dark mid-tone... This is never an exact science, but if we can at least think of our subject like this, and paint it as simply as possible from a tonal point of view….all the better! Whenever I got lost, I would ask questions like: Is it a light? Yes or No If no, then is it a dark? Yes or No If no, then it must be a mid-tone So then it is simply a question of; is it a light mid-tone or a darker mid-tone?


HOW can we use this for WATERCOLOUR?

The above approach has worked for me for many years, and is still a great way to think of things...however…as time has gone on I have found I have distilled and refined this idea down into an even simpler way of thinking bout tonal values. A way that I think is particularly useable and powerful for watercolour painting. It simply involves looking at any given area of our subject as either being in the light value group, or the shadow value group (or replace the word ‘group” with family” to make it sound even more friendly!) The natural process of watercolour painting then lends itself perfectly to painting these two groups of tones... ...and it actually gives us the most amazing PROCESS and STRUCTURE from which to build our watercolour paintings… Whatever you current experience level, taking a moment to lay these foundations down will give you the platform to really build up your painting skills, giving a much higher success rate and a significant improvement in your work

It is this way of looking for tonal values, and then using the natural tendencies of the watercolour that will be underpinning the entire of the Watercolour Masterclass Series. I truly believe once you get your head around this way of thinking about and painting your subject you will immediately feel more comfortable and confident tackling any well as knowing exactly how to create a great feeling of light and form!

If you are interested to join me for this Masterclass Series, specifically designed to help you improve your watercolour painting as quickly as possible, please click the button below to visit the same page where you signed up for the Free Demos.

Watercolour Masterclass Be sure to watch some of the videos on the page for full details of what is involved. The Courses start in May '23 via Zoom. I am really excited about these courses and cannot wait to share everything I have learnt so far on this Watercolour Journey! Once we understand tonal values, we can look at combing this with colour...then the fun really starts!! Until then, happy painting! Tom

1,186 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment


The Masterclass,yesterday,was very helpful, moved quickly and taught me many new tips. Will probably need to see it again and again to grasp it all .

Thank you so much,

Carolyn H. Lázaro



bottom of page