An exercise to help develop colour confidence

People often arrive for courses saying they want to feel more confident about using colour in their prints. It is easy to fix on a limited colour palette and stick to it because it feels safe, and of course it is cheaper than buying lots of different inks.
This printing exercise with tonal colour will help you take a little step outside of that comfort zone.

If you want to start investigating colour, tonal values can be a good beginning, as the technical aspects of colour theory can seem complicated at first.

On the other hand, if you already use and love colour, working specifically with tonal values will help you re-visit some of the basics, and remind yourself of forgotten possibilities.

mono print with three tones of vermillion

Become more aware of colour and tonal value

Students said they found that this activity helped to develop a more acute awareness of both colour and tone.

Once you start to unlock the visual language of colour your initial confusion will soon turn to excitement. Small structured activities like this one will help you develop more understanding of particular pigments and colours, as well as the concept of tonal value in colour.

The two images above are mono-prints by students exploring tonal variations with vermillion ink.

a three tone mono print with vermillion
three rollers with three tones of vermillion ink

Mix a tonal set of mono-chrome colours

Mono-chrome means one colour – and it doesn’t have to be black and white!
Choose a colour to start with. Ideally one which is not too dark and not too light, and therefore has potential for becoming lighter or darker. You will be altering the tonal value of this colour by adding white or grey/black.

Use any roller that will put a thin film of ink on the acetate – the ones shown here are wallpaper edging rollers from the D.I.Y. store (about £4), cheap school rollers are also fine for this.

vermillion ink with a little bit of grey

Mix a dark tone

After you have rolled a patch of the starting colour on the glass slab, put a blob of it on the slab next to this first rolled colour.

Add a tiny dab of grey or black; mix it in and roll it out. We used Hawthorn Printmaker stay open inks. An excellent grey to use for this exercise is their ‘’Patrick Winters Grey” this reduces the value of the colour, making it darker without changing the hue.

white ink with a blob of red

Mix a light tone

Put a blob of white ink on the slab beside the first patch. 

Add a tiny blob of your starting colour; mix them together and roll it out.

Always start with white and add colour in tiny amounts, if you do it the other way round you could end up using a whole pot of white to get it light enough!

Check your tonal contrast

Stand back and have a look at what you have just done. As well as your starting colour you should have two new ones, one lighter and one darker. Imagine the colours as a black and white photo – is the diffence in tonal value obvious or subtle?

If you want to adjust the contrast add more white, (or more colour) to the light one, and more grey, (or more colour), to the dark one.

By starting with one colour and altering it with grey or white you have three different colours which work together; they all have the same basic hue but the tonal values have been altered.

bright blue minds with grey a to darken it and white to lighten it

A set of blues with different tonal values

The bright blue in the centre is the starting colour; the top lighter stripe is mixed with white, the bottom darker one is mixed with a neutral grey.

cadmium orange mixed with white and grey to give a range of tonal values

Cadmium orange with two other tones

This is what hapens when you mix white with cadmium orange, and how it looks with a touch of grey. Who’d have thought it?

Mono prints

For this activity mono prints work well, they are quick and adaptable, and the simplicity of the technique means you can concentrate on the colour. Once you have the hang of it you can use this approach to colour mixing with any print technique, for exammple lino cuts or screen prints.

Keep it small
Use small plates for your experiments, this means you can do a lot of different ones fairly quickly and cheaply. The examples here were made on three 14cm sq. stiff acetates. Any smooth surface will do, e.g. tetra packs or stiff plastic.

Keep it simple
To mask the plates I used cut or torn newsprint and soft string.

They are printed with a press on 220gsm cartridge paper, which was dampened before use. See this post for more information on preparing damp paper for printmaking.

No press?
If you don’t have a press, lay thinner paper over the plate and rub the back to transfer the print.

“What about transparent ink?”
Yes, you are right! You can also lighten colours by adding transparent ink or extender, this works well with coloured inks which have a transparent base. However, for this activity white works better than transparent. If you are mixing white with a colour, the ink will become opaque, there is little point in adding transparent to opaque ink unless you want to print a misty scene!

3 colour plate on the press ready to be printed

Ink your plates for a test print

Once you are happy with your three colour tones test them out by rolling a stripe of all 3 colours on to two plates.

Print one plate on paper, then print the second plate over the first one, arrange it so the stripes cross over at 90 degrees. 

The ‘Flip’ method of registration

To get the edges lined up lay the first print on a flat surface and hold the second plate, inky side down, above it. For the test print turn the plate at 90 degrees to the print so the lines cross over. Lower the plate onto the print, lining the edges up. Do this while the paper is still wet, (the ink may be a bit wet too but don’t worry about this).

Carefully flip it over so the plate is underneath with the paper on top – run it through the press, or rub the back of the paper to print it. You will end up with a 9 square print showing all the different tonal combinations possible. For more information on registration see this post.

In this example the top right square has the lightest (opaque) colour printed over the darkest, the bottom left square has the darkest colour printed over the lightest.

two plates overprinted giving all tonal combinations

Make a 3-layer mono print

Take three plates and roll each one with a different ink tone. I am still using the cadmium orange mixtures here.

Mask each plate in different ways, aim to cover about 50% of the plate. This means the first print will have areas of white paper as well as ink. The white paper will enable subsequent layers of colour to show up well.

I used soft sring as a mask here, press it down gently so it is held in place by the tacky ink onthe plate.


three tones of cadmium orange rolled on the slab
three plates inked with cadmium orange tones, and masked with string
cadmium orange with white, mono print
pale orange with bright orange over it
mono print with three tones of cadmium orange

Print your plates

Start with the light opaque colour first. I found this works better than printing opaque on top of the others. (Check on your 9 square test print to see this)

Print the secnd plate on top of the print, and then the third one too. Each time a new layer of colour is added the print changes. The final print has three layers of colour, one from each plate.

If you have masked the plates enough your final print should have a lot of different colour tones in it as the three you started with will be printed on white paper, as well as on top of each other in different combinations.

Masking the plate with newspaper

Newspaper makes a good versatile mask. It is probably best to use clean newsprint actually, as the text can transfer to light colours if you use regular newspapers.

You can lay the newspaper mask onto the inky plate, pressing it down a bit to make sure it stays in place before turning it over to register it on the print. Alternatively lay the mask on the inked print, and then lower the inky plate on to it, before flipping it over to print it as described above.

torn newspaper as a mask

If you tear the paper you will get organic irregular shapes.

The first print in light orange is masked to leave some white areas.

second layer of orange ink used with a torn newspaper mask

The second layer is bright orange printed on top of light orange.

Both plates were masked with torn newspaper.

3 tone print made with torn newspaper

The final print contains all three tones of cadmium orange. The three separate plates were all masked and overprinted on top of each other.

simple mono print made with cut newspaper shapes

The first layer, printed in the dark orange tone. Cut shapes from newspaper have a more graphic effect than torn paper.

cut newspaper mask printed with orange ink

The second layer; a plate inked with bright orange and masked with more cut newspaper shapes which overlap the first ones.

light orange with a cut newspaper mask, overprinted

The last layer in light orange; the plate was masked with a differnt arrangement of cut newspaper and printed over the two previous ones. 

Adjust the proportions of tone in your prints

A print can have equal areas of light and dark tones, but if you deliberately make a print with mainly light tone, or mainly dark tones you may find it is more interesting.

Once you have played around with the masking technique and tried differnt colours this is a good exercise to try.

It is actually a bit harder than you would think, it took me a few goes to get it right, but it is very satisfying when it works.

A mono print with predominantly light tonal values
A mono print with predominantly dark tonal values

Rules are helpful

By limiting your colour to one and adding white and a neutral grey to alter the tonal values, you are removing the anxiety that can come with too much colour choice.

It is a relief to realise that whatever colour you start with the three different tones will always work together. It is also surprising to discover how many different colours these tonal variations will produce when they are overlaid.

I hope this simple exercise will give you hours of fun and help increase your awareness of both tonal value and pigments as you try it out with different starting colours.