Okay, I am getting the feeling that my last two posts did not go over too well--especially the last one. So, I am going to get back to my "bread and butter", which is to focus on making helpful suggestions on studio practices.
Most artist who are just starting out with painting--and even those that have been painting for years--can easily mistake the chroma (intensity) of a color for its tone. Another common mistake is to paint at the extremes, i.e., make all your light tones very high, and your dark tones too dark. Another common problem is to paint in too narrow of a tonal range--that is to paint with virtually the same tone and only vary the color. All these problems related back to the same problem, lack of tonal control.
One common mistake I see artist making in their paintings is to think the higher the intensity of color, the higher the tone. For example, I see a lot of beginning artist look at a tree and want to increase the amount or strength of (or add a lot of white or yellow to) the green used to suggest a highlight (where the light strikes the tree). The result is usually not only a tree that isn't really convincing--but also distracts the viewer. This happens because, without the proper tonal relationship, the tree will not have a convincing sense of mass or relate properly to the things around it. In my experience, it is the relationship of tones in a painting that is more important than color. For example, a tree painted completely in black and white, but with the proper tones, is much more satisfying than a tree painted in all sorts of colors but lacking proper tonal control.
Take, for example, the above drawing, which I have selected as an example of why tone is more important than color. "Running Dog" was a drawing I did in preparation for a painting I did over the summer of our family dog chasing a Frisbee. I deliberately limited the palette in this drawing since I wanted mainly to see if I could draw a convincing picture of a dog running with a Frisbee in its mouth. I did this almost entirely by proper placement and control of relative tones. In fact, there is virtually no color in the drawing, except for the fact that I accidentally got some ultramarine blue into the drawing as I was finishing it. Even then, however, the resulting blue marks work because of the fact that the tone is correct, not the color itself. In fact, the Frisbee was red--but does the viewer know or care about what color the Frisbee is? Also, have you ever seen a dog with blue fur? What matters is that the tones are correct.
Here is another example. I posted a picture the other day of "two pears". People seemed to like the painting--and many commented on the color and expressiveness of the painting. But, in fact, in my mind, the best aspect of this painting is the high level of tonal control I achieved. Don't believe me, check out the painting in black and white--it is still a convincing image of two pears.
As I have said many times in my blog, if a painting does not work in black and white, it will not work in color. Color provides mood, but tone makes a painting convincing. Okay, so how do you go about improving your tonal control while painting. Here are a few ideas that I have developed over the years:
1. Limit your Palette. I went through a phase early in my painting career where I stopped using color at all--or would start all my paintings as monochromatic under-paintings to make sure I got the tones correct. If you go back in my postings to the demonstration I did in July of the "Yellow Cup", you will see this process described. Basically, you get the tones right before introducing any color into the painting--and then finish the painting by slowly introducing color. An alternative is simply paint with 2-3 colors, such as burnt sienna, white, and ultramarine blue. If you can't make an interesting painting with these three colors, you will not be able to do it with more.
2. Make a Tonal Reference Chart. I still keep a 9 tone scale taped to my easel to use when mixing paint. Essentially, to make the scale, I took black and white and made various gradings of pure tone (moving from white to black on each end) on a strip of old canvas. When I am in doubt about which tone to use, or if I have mixed the right tone on the palette or canvas, I will compare it to this scale. I also use it when mixing colors before painting to make sure the color I am mixing is in the right tone. For example, if I know that there is a two or three tone difference between two colors in a painting (perhaps between the trees and the ground plane, for example) I will mix the colors and reference them against scale to make sure that I have not made them too far apart or too close in tone.
3. Mix tone first, then color. Tone is more important than color--and most artist's paints sold these days have enough pigment to change a color very quickly in the direction needed. So my advice is to make sure the tone is correct first, then add the colors to get to where you want to go. For instance, if you want to mix a green, start by mixing equal parts of a green and red (two complements) together until you get a middle tone (check it against your scale), then add a bit of white or ultramarine blue to move toward the right tone (it will look dark brown or light brown depending on which you add). When you have the right tone--add green to the mixture until it gets to the intensity you want. If you feel you have to add a lot of green to get the intensity up--you probably did not have the right tone in the first place. If the tone is right, adding just a touch of green should get you a the right color. Another way to do this I also described in an earlier post--which is to buy neutral chromatic paints premixed--and then add color to them. For example, use Holbein Monochromatic Colors (they come in three neutral graded tones).
4. Pre-mixed Colors and Tones. I know there are some who will argue against this approach, but I like to mix most of the colors I need before I start painting. I usually adjust these a bit as I paint--but if the tones and color are in the right range, these adjustments are usually minor. I showed you how to premix a palette for a landscape painting in a previous post. But, for instance in the "two pears" painting, I -pre-mixed the foreground color, background color, the shadow color on the foreground plane, the mid-tone for the pears, shadow color for the pears, and then the highlight and accent colors (where the light hits the pears, and the darkest shadow and stems). Once I had these colors all mixed, painting was much easier and I could make minor adjustments along the way. Pre-mixing, for me, is a good way to ensure the tones will work together and relative to one another. You can take a black and white picture of your palette or use your tonal reference guide to check that the tones are correct. If the tones are not clear in your subject matter (a still life or landscape you are trying to paint), take a black and white digital picture and keep it next to the easel for reference. You can compare the tones in your painting to those in the reference photo, with the color removed.
5. Use a Camera or Video. I mentioned this the other day in my posting on "seeing your work more objectively". The same process would apply. Periodically, take black and white photos of your painting with a digital camera or video camera and check your tonal range and control. If it doesn’t look right in black and white, it will not work in color.
Okay, there you go. Some tips to assist your painting over the weekend. Hope you find them useful.
I am proud to let you know that I have been commissioned to do a painting that will be included in a national Hall of Fame museum (which one I will not yet say). Stay tuned, in my next posting I will tell you which Museum and will reveal the painting. You will relish it (pun intended).
All the best, Sixtyminuteartist.