I’ve been painting for 20 over years now and only recently, I’ve begun to finally understand the concept of color and mapping color to tonal values. The vast amount of techniques, information and color wheels out there are nothing more than confusing and contradicting. I love to discover formulas that work each time when I paint, but for the love of my life I couldn’t understand color enough to get a predictable result each time without experimenting or doing thumbnails.

I thought, with the right knowledge and procedure, I must be able to come up with a method of working with color that gives consistent results. Hence, my journey in color study begin.

Color wheels and more wheels

Let’s start from the beginning. This is the color wheel we all know by heart. Note that all the primary colors are separated equally in distance from each other. Then we learn about complementary colors, of how opposing colors placed next to each other complements each other. But when we actually put that to practice, we somehow stumble into problems of it looking more amateur and disconnected instead of complementing each other. What could be missing from this practice?

Then as we proceed along our arduous journey of color discovery, we stumbled into the Munsell Color Wheel, which basically cancels out everything we know about the wheel. Note that the primaries does not have equal distance or number of hues between them. Long story short, it’s telling us oranges doesn’t really matter, expanding the greens and purples give a whole lot more colors for us to work from. However, the expanded color wheel throws everything we know about complementary mixes into the trash.

What we can learn from this wheel, is that the complementaries made from this wheel are in fact, complements that work better than the previous wheel. Again, why?

As I continue to delve further into this mystery, I found Goethe’s Theory of Colors(translated partially). The book was controversial and still is, since parts of it contradicts Newton’s color theory. Newton won science down. Newton’s findings were based on physics and science, where else Goethe’s insights are merely visual notes of various light conditions. To an artist, Goethe’s theory is definitely more applicable since we are visual creators.

One thing I could not help but notice was his color wheel. The complementary colors are visually striking, strong and pleasing. This was great, it gave me 2 good samples to identify similarities and the answer was simple, to create a harmonious natural complementary pair of colors that vibrates, both must be of similar tonal value. 

Tonal Value

Which leads us to the next topic of tonal values. Tonal values are a measurement system created to separate the light from the dark.

Color and its tonal value(RGB version). Pure colors are in the center.


Let’s call the above visual study RGB color tonal values before we proceed. In Photoshop or any other artist’s software, colors are arranged to their tonal value like above. If the entire image is desaturated of color, the same tonal values would be seen across all colors. Pure color hues are a value 5. So, when I said that successful complementaries are of similar value, it means that if your red is a value 3, the corresponding green value 3 should be used.

However, this is only one way of seeing values in colors.


Left – Colors and their mother value.
Right – Desaturating the colors reveals that digital softwares does not read the color at its mother value. It reads a value of around 5.

Another school of thought : from the figure above, it is noted that all pure colors are made of different values. I must also clarify that if you desaturate the image, you will not be able to prove this theory correct. Photoshop still reads the pure hues as tonal value 5. Assuming that you agree that this might be correct, from here on, the visual experiments have to be conducted by eye.

Visually created tonal values of color according to its’ mother value. White dots indicate pure hue.


Let’s call the above visual color tonal values. This study was created according to each pure hue’s mother value. Again, there is no way to prove that this is accurate by means of desaturation. But the most impactful observation is that the color of light starts at yellow and ends darkest at blue or blue purple.

An important note – mixing colors of different mother values will produce a mix of a new value. Mixing yellow with blue will result in a value 6 green.

The above complementaries show different results when using either of the color tonal values chart. Maximum vibration is seen in the visual color tonal values complementaries, suggesting that the mother tonal value does play a part in a painting.

  • When creating complementaries, be aware of which color wheel you are referencing from. The Munsell color wheel is more advanced and suitable for colorists.
  • To create subtle complementaries, make sure that the values of the opposing colors are different. Either RGB or Visual color tonal values can be used to judge this.
  • To create vibrating complementaries, make sure that the values of the opposing colors are as close as possible. Judge using visual  to create a more lifelike result.

Lighting Forms

If you are wondering which set of color tonal values to use when painting, you are not alone. The key is not to pick and choose but to understand the limits and advantages of each value system.

Without light, the following happens:

  1. Tonal value drops. Light disappear.
  2. Saturation drops. Color disappear.

However, must both criteria be present to depict light in forms? I have always wondered how artists render light so beautifully, as if they are glowing. How did they map colors to the tonal values? The most dumbfounding realization was that their brightest color of light wasn’t white. Here, we delve into all these questions.

First of all, there are many ways to depict form. As we explore the many methods, the answer will be clear to us all.

Some notes before beginning :

  1. Hue – pure color or mixed pure colors
  2. Tone – color mixed with grey. example – neutrals mixed with complementary colors.
  3. Shade – color mixed with black
  4. Tint – color mixed with white.

The following are some of the methods, with notes on key execution techniques.

#1 Depicting Forms with Tonal Value

  1. A set of values is chosen and the object is painted in tonal values.
  2. Full range of all 10 values is not necessary.
  3. Separate the values into 2 groups- light and shadow. Vary the ratio of coverage or values used between these 2 groups for mood. Example :
    1. High contrast & dramatic(chiaroscuro) – 3 lightest values for light, 3 lightest values for shadow. Shadow group covers 60% of artwork.
    2. Low contrast – set of values for light and shadow group, the values between the 2 groups are close together. Similar ratio of coverage. Suitable to be developed into colorful paintings.
  4. Place reflections of highlights into shadows and shadows into highlights.


#2 Depicting Forms with Shades & Tints

This is the most basic method for depicting light with color. The form is retained but is without reflected colors and environment colors affected by light and shadows. It is simply depicted with a change of tonal value. Far from realism due to what it lacks but offers good practice for beginners who have trouble matching colors to tonal values.

  1. The local color(color of the object) is chosen. The hue is mixed with white to get tints of various values. The hue is also mixed with black to get shades of various values. The values are mixed to express the same scale as the one used in method 1.
  2. A simple paintover of placing color with the same tonal value in the correct location is done.
  3. Does not matter which color tonal value measurement is used.


#3 Depicting form with saturation/chroma

Back to the observation of the absence of light, a drop of saturation and value signifies the lack of light. So then, it would be possible to render form with just grey tones and a pure hue.


  1. The light values are completed covered with a pure hue.
  2. This creates a new scenario whereby grey areas are the shadow, saturated colors are the light.
  3. Note that the pure hue value does not need to match the tonal value of the painting. As long as the hue is more saturated, it will appear as light next to grey. 
  4. Also note the possible glow effect.
  5. This does not mean that only the strongest color can produce this result. As long as there is a difference in saturation, form can be depicted. A more subtle result can be achieved by slightly desaturating the hue or slightly saturating the greys.

Another step further, would it also be possible to carve form without ANY change in tonal value?

Yes, it is possible. The eye automatically assumes color as light and grey areas as darkness/shadows. Conflicting but visually possible. Only if the following requirements are met :

  1. The shadow group must be filled with a flat grey of exactly the same value with the hue acting as light.
  2. This value must be derived from the visual color tonal values and not the rgb one.
  3. Any other changes in tonal value is not necessary.
  4. This method has the least visual contrast compared to the other methods since it rejects the usage of value range.
  5. Often used in paintings of clouds, especially when the clouds are not the main focus.

This method is often employed by impressionists who employ this technique in areas where focus is not needed. They reserve the largest range of tonal values only in areas of focal interest. This can provide an opportunity to control a chaotic scene by selectively changing the ways form is depicted.

#4 Painting light into forms with RGB color tonal values

Using the RGB color tonal values chart, the painting is painted over with the corresponding color in the same value. This method can be used for realism up to a certain extent. It leverages on tonal values to bring out the form in the subject matter. Matching color to values in this method is a calculated process that can be easier done in digital painting. The color picker gives ample information regarding the tonal value of each color.

It is inherently more difficult for the traditional painter as the color are harder to match to its value since this evaluation of values is easier done by computer than by eye.

Rules are as follows :

  1. Light is first painted. A color is chosen as the light, value must match the underpainting’s lightest value.
  2. Local color(choice of object color) is painted, substituting value 5.
  3. A shadow color is made by either mixing color of light and its complementary color. Example, in the image above yellow(color of light) and purple is mixed to get a neutral gray for the shadow. For digital painting, layering both colors with varying opacity would work as well.
  4. The colors for the rest of the values are chosen and painted over. Choice of colors are as follows:
    1. The color temperature for the other values is shifted to be closer and closer as it approaches the local color. Example, yellow is shifted to orange, then red, then to the local color of pink in the image above.
    2. For traditional painting, this does not mean that yellow can be mixed with pink to get the temperature shifts. Often, it requires mixes with other colors in between the 2 colors. The example above requires orange to be able to get the correct temperature shift.
    3. Each shift of temperature is also corrected with either black or white(if necessary) to match the corresponding tonal value of the underpainting.
    4. Once the mix is achieved, it is painted over.
    5. Shadow colors past the local color can either be :
      1. local color + black
      2. shift of temperature(to be cooler if the color of light is warm and to be warmer if the color of light is cool) + matching of tonal values
  5. Reflections of color from background is introduced into the object. Reflections of object color into the cast shadow is also introduced.
  6. If color of light is white, then the color of the shadow should be brown.
  7. For digital painting, the artwork can be checked by desaturating all colors and seeing if the tonal values are the same as the underpainting.

#5 Painting light into forms with visual color tonal values

This uses the same approach as above but with the visual color tonal values chart instead. This approach is more suitable for traditional artists or artists with traditional painting and plein air experience.

The result shows a more vibrant and more effective way of capturing light in a painting. However, this gears slightly towards impressionism as a result of highly saturated colors. To keep it realistic, the colors can be toned with gray(shadow groups or the entire painting) to reduce the distracting but unusually flat play of vibrant colors. The image above shows that even by using mostly pure colors, a depiction of form is possible since every color has its own value.

When well executed, it can give the painting a kind of realism that does not exist in nature or reality. As if it’s more real, different from reality. The artist’s personal judgement of values, color’s mother value and temperature shift gives a very personal solution compared to merely depicting reality as it is. When the painting’s colors doesn’t work, it does not help to copy reality more intently. Instead, the artist must find the problems with the color/tonal/chroma relationships in the painting and address them.

It is often said that a painting can either have a wide range of values or a wide range of colors, but not both. To put it to practice, paintings with a wide range of values goes well with desaturated colors and paintings with a small range of values centered around value 5 is more suited for a colorful painting. One can try to have both many values and colors, but it takes great skill to be able to pull it off.

For painters, this is more suitable because it is easier to match colors to tonal values since this is based on a visual approximation system. However, this requires experience, knowledge or a trained eye for judging values of different colors. This can prove to be difficult since every pigment or paint manufactured have different values and also different chroma/saturation. A study on your own set of palette and where each color lies in terms of tonal value is imperative to getting past this steep learning curve.

The painting can be checked by squinting at it to judge its tonal values. Try it at the image above, squint at the color and value scale at the bottom left. If both color and value merge into one entity when you squint, it is of the same value.

 #6 Painting luminosity, translucent objects or glow

This method can be used for skin, fruits, sub-scattering surfaces, glowing colors or backlit objects.

This approach make use of complementaries and tonal value to give the effect of luminosity and combines all the approaches above to execute.

  1. Local color is chosen and painted over value 5.
  2. Light can be depicted with another color or by adding white to the local color to create tints.
  3. Shadow must be warmer in temperature compared to local color, and more saturated than usual. Example if the local color is blue, the shadows must move towards purple.
  4. Cast shadow must have more reflections of local color in them.
  5. The highlight or glow’s complementary color is mixed and is adjusted to match the glow’s value. It is painted right next to the highlight. These 2 colors must touch in order to create a vibrating effect.
  6. For a more subtle effect, the complementary color can be greyed down or neutralized.
  7. The painting will be more convincing when executed with limited tonal values and keeping the tonal values close to the glow’s color’s tonal value. See method 3.
  8. When depicting reality, the complementary color can be painted like a jagged rim around the glow if it seemed to be too unnatural to flood part of the background with this color. Example


  1. When creating complementaries, be aware of which color wheel you are referencing from. The Munsell color wheel is more advanced and suitable for colorists.
  2. To create subtle complementaries, make sure that the values of the opposing colors are different. Either RGB or Visual color tonal values can be used to judge this.
  3. To create vibrating complementaries, make sure that the values of the opposing colors are as close as possible. Judge using visual  to create a more lifelike result.
  4.  Lack of light causes tonal values to drop, saturation to drop or combination of both.
    1. Hue – pure color or mixed pure colors
    2. Tone – color mixed with grey. example – neutrals mixed with complementary colors.
    3. Shade – color mixed with black
    4. Tint – color mixed with white.
  5. Start with method 1 – model forms using tonal values first. Make sure reflections of highlights and shadows is explored before proceeding.
  6. Method 2 – simplest method of picking a color, mixing tints and shades from it. Substitute over tonal value underpainting.
  7. Method 3 – creating forms by varying saturation. Greys recede and saturated color becomes the light. Grey must be of same tonal value with color for a low contrast execution. Only one tonal value is required to render the object.
  8. Method 4 – mapping colors to tonal values using RGB color tonal values. Suitable for digital painters. Mistakes can be checked by desaturating entire image. If tonal values does not match the underpainting, the color is incorrectly chosen.
  9. Method 5 – mapping colors to tonal values by eye. Suitable for traditional painters who paint in oil, acrylic etc. Requires experience and research into your own palette’s colors’ mother value. Easier to make mistakes if inexperienced and can result in the emergence of a new personal style. Click here for a pdf of common pigment’s mother value.
  10. Method 6 – using complementaries to create the luminous or glowing effect. This is how you can paint translucent objects.