Sunday Thoughts: Toning the Canvas

It's called toning the canvas, and it's one of my favorite parts of painting. I didn't realize why that is until I explained the process a bit this year to two different friends. In trying to break down the process and give them the whys and wherefores, I found the words "give it some history" coming out.

Bright, blank, white canvases glare; their emptiness, if not softened, creates a stiff solidness to the final work. Of course, the very blankness is one tool that is sometimes used by artists, too, but in my work I can't handle the blocky blankness of it. So I always, always start with a wash, a watered acrylic tone of color. Sometimes it's simply a warm golden glow. Sometimes it's a brown tone, or a blue one to bring coolness and earthyness. Sometimes the color on the bottom is the exact opposite of the color impression you get from the top layer.

But that base tone, seen or not, defines the final picture more than anything else.

After washing the watery paint on, I let it sit for a few minutes. Yesterday, while working on a big project outside in the sun, I couldn't wait very long before it dried some of the pigment on to the white surface. After a few minutes, I go back in with a wet paper towel and start taking off the paint I just added. Toning, for me, is just as much about what gets removed from the surface; it's all history. The paint comes unevenly, either settling into the surface or pulling up with the paper towel. Finally, it begins to take on character; darker patches, streaks, cloudy sections. Finally, something to work with, something to make beautiful in subsequent layers. And it all comes from that first exercise in trust; the daring act of coloring the emptiness.


Jessi said…
What a great picture of our growing process
Single and Sane said…
I had never heard of toning the canvas before. So many applications...