Why Toning My Canvases Orange is the First Thing I Do

If you’ve watched any of my painting time-lapse videos, you know I usually start with an orange base on my canvases. Why? It’s a fairly middle value, so it’s a good starting point. Plus, it warms up my painting, even if you never see the orange beneath.

Jump ahead to about the 57-second mark to see me tone the canvas orange.

This is called toning the canvas.

It establishes a base so sections of white gesso that smooths and protects the canvas don’t peek through. The tone can serve to unify colors somewhat. It’s generally a good idea to start with a middle value, so the artist can easily add darks and lights to build the composition. A lot of beginners start with stark white and can only make it darker. If you start with a middle tone, you can go darker or lighter.

Traditionally, painters start with a rich gray or brown tone, roughly halfway between the darkest and lightest colors. If I were painting more traditionally, I would begin my canvases with a wash of warm gray or burnt sienna. And what is brown but a dark orange?

I aim to create bright, vibrant canvases, so I use orange.

"Warmth," 2017. Acrylic on canvas. 8 x 8 inches

The warm tone creates excitement, energy, and warmth, regardless of the dominant color in the end. I think people sense that energy even if they never see the underpainting. Every now and then a little bit of the orange peeks through.

When I first started painting I used Cerulean Blue, which is a vibrant blue on the greener side of things. I’ve always liked toning my canvases with bright colors rather than neutrals. It makes the painting exciting for me. I think that carries over to my viewers.

I’m not the first person to tone with orange.

I actually picked up the orange technique from Robert Burridge. It’s how he was taught, actually. I wasn’t taught to tone the canvas any particular way. I discovered Bob a few years ago when I was trying to figure out how to bring more brightness and energy to my painting, and I think the orange underpainting does the job.