• Danica Thurber

Midtones and more!

Updated: Aug 14, 2019

This is part 2 of a series where I'm showing you how to paint realistically using vibrant, life-filled colors. The result is a painting that breaths life in both form and tone.


If you missed the first post, which sets you up well from the beginning, check it out here.


For a reference, this is the finished painting. I’ll show you how to get there in these next steps.


Now, on to the easel....


What you’ll need today:

  • Acrylic paints - peach/flesh tone, brown, white, black, and more red, blue, and yellow

  • High definition reference photo (+ a practice sketch of it if it’s helpful to you)

  • Brushes: medium 8 (flat), round size 3 or 4, and mini detail brush size 1 or 2

  • Water, water cup, paper towel

1.) Step back and evaluate your painting so far, now that you’ve had time away from it. Compare your painting to the shapes and basic tones of your reference photo. Do the shapes relate to one another properly? Are the highlights /shadows where they need to be? If you notice differences, now is a good time to dip into that red, yellow and blue and finish until it looks right.



When everything looks set, you’re ready to move on to the more subtle browns and grey that make up lifelike scenes.


2.) Begin by dipping the medium brush in water and diluting half of the peach/flesh tone on your palette (leave the other half undiluted so you can use it for detail later). Use the watery paint on the brush to wash over the lightest tan parts of the painting. Often these will be the places where the sun highlights an object or a person’s skin.


3.) Next, clean your medium brush in water, and without drying it off, dilute half of the brown paint on your palette (again, leave the other half undiluted so you can use it for detail later). Use the watery paint on the brush to wash over the darker tan parts of the painting. Often these will be the places where the sun creates a shadow on an object or a person’s skin. For shadows that are very dark, I add another wash that consists of brown mixed with blue. This creates a shadow that has life and depth, as opposed to an uninteresting and flat black shadow.


4.) There will be other places that need washes of color. For this picture, both the grass and the field of broken rulers need their own set of washes that loosely follow the steps outlined above:

  • The grass is a wash of green made by mixing blue and yellow together. I then added other washes over the grass to show highlights (using a little blue and more yellow) and shadows (using more blue and a touch of brown, with a little yellow). The rulers broken on the ground are each made of washes of the same tans and browns as the skin, but with some yellows added to the highlights and blues added to the shadows.

  • I like to paint on several washes of these mid tones (steps 2-4), gradually toning down the harshness of the vibrant color, yet using the transparency of the wash still showing enough of it underneath.


I like to paint on several washes of these mid tones (steps 2-4), gradually toning down the harshness of the vibrant color, yet using the transparency of the wash still showing enough of it underneath.


5.) We need a smaller brush as e narrow down the details. Switch to a round brush size 3 or 4. For this step we will use the same palette of tan, brown, green, yellow, blue, and reds, as well as the mixes you made in between. The smaller brush allows you to add variation to the tones you created with the washes. For example, the side of each toe doesn’t just get darker as it curves around to the ground. Instead, there are minor contours in the toe, which vary the light as the toe slopes around. It’s not just an increasing shadow!


This part can drive you crazy if you let it. Pay attention to detail, but don’t get too caught up in it. Constantly step back from the canvas and make sure the picture as a whole is cohesive and beautiful. Little details should add to the big picture, not distract from it. I do this part of several days, weeks, even months, depending on how “into” the painting I am.



6.) Now it is finally time to take out that teeny little detail brush! For the most part, this brush should be reserved for black and white paints only. That’s because those small details - a shine of the lips, a stray hair catching the light, the curve of a dark eyelash, a line of deep contoured shadow in black, etc. are what really bring a piece to life. These must stand out from the see of mid tones, but not too much as to be distracting. This is why we reserve white and black and the teeny brush for the end.

Note that these steps are general. If while I’m in a certain stage and notice something is off, I always go back and fix it! Sometimes I’m just so excited for the detail brush, I skip ahead and go for it before it’s time (which is sometimes successful, sometimes not). The thing about art is… well, it’s not a science! It’s a constant dance of color, form, and stepping close, and then far away from the canvas. You can paint something lifelike, but it should always retain an element of imagination - that’s what makes it so beautiful, in fact!


Happy painting! I’d love to see your finished work and answer any questions I can. Comment below - I’d love to hear from you!


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