How to understand the tonal values of colours – and have fun, by Vicki Norman

Vicki Norman, a tutor at The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.Our talented and inspiring Watermill painting tutor Vicki Norman has sent us this practical (and colourful) tip to help you improve the accuracy and harmony in your paintings.  It concerns ‘colour matching’, a technique worth practising for its own sake as well as in individual paintings.

Vicki says:It’s a good idea to match the most prominent colours in a scene before you begin to paint it. Mixing colours before you begin to paint allows you to focus exclusively on the colour and tonal value relationships.”

She adds: You don’t have to worry about drawing, shapes, brushwork, surface or expression at this stage. By focussing solely on the colours for a few minutes before you begin, you can allow yourself to concentrate on capturing the sense of light and the essence of the day through the temperature and balance of the colours. It can be a very satisfying process and is often one of my favourite stages in making a painting.

“In fact, it’s a great exercise in its own right and I recommend it as a way to use up spare paint at the end of a day, or to use up a few minutes at the end of a session. The method outlined below has improved the speed and accuracy of my colour matching more quickly than any other exercise – and its great fun too!”

Vicki begins with ‘a game of pairs’: I look at the scene before me and try to guess which colours would share the same tonal value a black and white photo. I try to identify which are the ‘darks’ and which are the ‘lights’. Everything else will be a mid-value. Squinting helps me to see similarities in the tonal values of the colours, it simplifies the value pattern, allowing dark areas to merge and middle values to become more apparent.”

Painting by Vicky Norman, a tutor at The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

Try to guess which parts of the picture will be the same shade of grey in a black and white photo.

“Then I photograph the scene and use my smartphone to turn the image into black and white; I check to see how accurate my guesses were.”

Painting by Vicky Norman, a tutor at The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

Notice how the red and turquoise buildings have a very similar tonal value to the blue sky and the tarmac whilst the green and orange buildings at the end of the road also make a value pair.

“As I begin to match the colours from the scene on my palette, I remain aware of their tonal value. I mix all my ‘darks’ adjacent to one another, so that I can squint at my palette and assess whether they are of a similar value. I do the same with the mid-value colours, and with the lights; the various piles of colour on my palette are arranged in bands of values from light to dark.”

Painting by Vicky Norman, a tutor at The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

Notice how the colours run from light to dark across the palette.

Once the colours are mixed on my palette, I take a photograph of them and turn it into black and white. This shows me how accurate my value perception really is, I can tell if one of my colours is lighter or darker than it should be, and I can fix it before I begin to paint with it!”

Painting by Vicky Norman, a tutor at The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

In greyscale it is much easier to see the difference in tonal value from one colour to another. The palette is arranged with 5 distinct value bands running from left to right.

Vicki says: “This exercise can be done on location and in your studio, it is the best way to simultaneously develop your tonal value perception and your colour mixing skills in a fun, enjoyable challenge.” 

She adds: Matching the colours before you paint on location has another great benefit for which I have often been grateful; if the weather suddenly changes, or the boat you are painting sails away, you already have all the information you need to complete a painting in your studio! If you have an accurate colour match from the scene, and a decent photo to illustrate the shapes and relative tonal values, you can finish the work at a later date.

“If I’m out painting and I see something I really want to paint, but I don’t have time to complete a painting on the spot, I often make a quick colour match and snap a photo as reference for later. The colour swatches matched on location can then be used back in the studio in conjunction with photos to make a finished painting.” [Copyright Vicki Norman 2017 all rights reserved.]

Vicki Norman will be with us for a week’s course in oils en plein air, which will run from Saturday 6 October to Saturday 13 October 2018.

Her painting below is a study of the Apuan Alps near the Watermill.

Painting by Vicki Norman, a tutor at The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

Vicki says: “The bright yellow of the ginestra at the front contrasted beautifully with the lilac of the marble- capped mountains behind. I knew if I could capture the colours of the moment, I could use them for subsequent studio paintings at home.

You, too, will be painting those sensational mountains on Vicki’s course. The week-long course is primarily in oils and watercolours, but Vicki is happy to teach in other mediums, too. We now have eight people booked in, so we have room for three or four more painters (and their non-painting partners), so now is the time to reserve your place.

Below is another great oil painting, called  Massa sunset. (Massa is the capital of the province in which The Watermill is located).

Painting by Vicki Norman, a tutor at The Watermill at Posara painting holidays/vacations, Tuscany, Italy.

Vicki says: “Looking south from the coast below Fivizzano, it is possible to see the marble docks at Massa. This is where they took Michelangelo’s marble from the mountains and prepared it for transport sculptures, what an amazing place! And it’s still working now, I liked the sense of history and the colours of the industrial machinery against the sky at sunset was irresistible. The soft colours blended in the sky and I found repeating spots of orange and red along the beach that allowed me to play with mark making and small accents of colour. I’m very fond of this painting, it sums up so many things I love about Tuscany!”

As well as a great painter, Vicki is also a great teacher. She’s been teaching professionally for more than 20 years and offers plenty of help and individual attention. As one previous student said: “Vicki has a way of explaining complex ideas that makes them simple enough for a beginner to grasp easily, yet she can stretch the advanced painters in the group too.” 

Everything is included in the cost of your holiday at the watermill: tuition, accommodation (including all linen and towels), pre-dinner aperitifs, all meals and wines (including outings to charming local restaurants) and all local transportation (including transfers to Pisa airport and an excursion by train to Lucca or the Cinque Terre). You get to Pisa, Italy, we do the rest!

vicki plus pic

6-13 October 2018 

Vicki Norman

Oils (and other mediums)

To learn more about Vicki and her course at The Watermill, please click here.



  1. Penny lamb says

    Thank you for this Vicki, it’s very helpful,especially taking a photo of the palette!

    • We’re pleased to be of help, Penny. Maybe you would like to join us here for Vicki’s delightful week and learn even more… With best wishes Bill

  2. Judith A. Davidson says

    This is going to be very helpful for me. Of course, I recognized the location immediately and am so happy you can use this photo of St. George’s, Bermuda, from your visit with us, in your demonstration here. Its really brings it home for me! I have never truly understood tonal values until your explanation. I will certainly try this trick. Many thanks.

    • Thank you for you kind comment Judith. We’re glad to be of help.Vicki will be at the Watermill this Autumn if you’d like to visit us and learn even more…

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