Oil painting basics: reasons to tone your oil painting canvas

Photo of the canvas toning process using Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna

Why do you tone a canvas?

  • To make a “white” canvas or panel less intimidating to paint
  • Toning creates a neutral background
  • It covers the entire surface leaving no areas of blank (white) canvas

How do you tone a canvas for oil painting?

In my experience earth colors work best. My preferred color is Burnt Sienna but I’ve also used Burnt Umber. Additionally, I’ve experimented with Ultramarine Blue and Perylene Red.

I use a rag dipped in Turpenoid. Then I dip the rag into a glob of paint on my palette. Finally, I cover the canvas with a thin layer of that paint. Make sure to let the background color fully dry before you begin painting. If wet, any colors you apply will mix with the background and muddy your colors.

CAUTION: Be careful when using strong colors like Ultramarine Blue or Perylene Red. When I’ve used Perylene Red, I struggled throughout the painting process to tame the strength of that color. This can be very frustrating.

Examples of usage

Plein air landscape painting on easel by Francisco Silva

In the plein air painting above I used a Burnt Sienna background. Although strong colors dominate this painting, you can see hints of the background color through some parts it. Look at the reds as well as the yellows in the lower part of the painting.

“Forever” oil painting by Francisco Silva

“Forever” shows the usage of an Ultramarine Blue background. After my negative experience using Perylene Red, I used this blue background as a foundation for a monochromatic painting. The blue contrasts nicely with the highlights as well as the yellows in the painting.

How it improves your painting

  • It creates a neutral base that you can build upon
  • It’s particularly helpful when plein air painting when you’re fighting against time to capture a scene. The neutral background covers the entire panel eliminating the need to cover it with the paint you’re applying.


  1. Tone your canvas to create a neutral background
  2. Use earth colors (Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber)
  3. Be cautious of using strong colors as a background
  4. Toning creates a layer of color that you can build on
  5. Helpful when plein air painting as you have a limited time to paint

Do you tone your canvas? What color(s) do you use? What have been your experiences with toned canvases?

How to mix subtle grays for your next oil painting

Paintings by Francisco Silva named Full Stop
“Full Stop” an oil painting by Francisco Silva

Why can’t I just use a tube of gray paint?

…or mix Titanium White and Ivory Black to make gray? You can, but as a painter you should learn to mix paint:

  • to expand you understanding of color
  • to increase your range of color choices

How to start

I prefer Gamblin oil paints (my choice for using Gamblin may be a future post). To get a neutral gray, I start with equal parts Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna and Titanium White. But I prefer to mix equal parts Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna to get a dark, rich gray. I then add small amounts of Titanium White to get the desired tint. My next step is to add small amounts of Burnt Sienna to make a “warm” gray or Ultramarine Blue to make a “cool” gray. Try experimenting to create a range of grays with different values.

Examples of usage

Detail of Painting named Full Stop
Detail of “Full Stop” by Francisco Silva

Above is a painting I recently finished. Detail A is an example of a warm gray. Detail B is an example of a cool gray. Since this is a night scene with many light sources, I wanted to emphasize the subtlety of the lighting by using a range of warm and cool grays. If you look at the entire painting, you can see that I’ve created cool colors on the left side to warm colors on the right side. This was done to create different moods.

Detail A shows a warm gray that creates a more interesting contrast in the lights and darks within the painting. It’s this subtlety that we’re trying to achieve.

Detail B shows cool grays that have more blue paint. You’ll notice that there are variations of cool blues within this detail.

How it improves your painting

As a painter, you want to increase your choices by creating a wide range of colors and values. Why settle for one choice (Payne’s gray) when I can mix a multitude of grays and have something that will create more visual interest in my painting.


  1. Learn to mix color to become a better painter
  2. Start with Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna to mix you initial gray
  3. Add Titanium White to tint the gray
  4. Add Ultramarine Blue to create a “cooler” gray
  5. Add Burnt Sienna to create a “warmer” gray
  6. Use this technique to improve your color range and create different moods within the painting

How do you mix grays in your painting? What colors/techniques do you use?