Saturday, October 20, 2007

Improve your Tonal Control

"Running Dog (Study)", Mixed Media on Paper
Jerry Lebo, 2007


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.

36 comments:

prophet said...

wow - that was very helpful! A lot to digest. . . . thanks. I'll enjoy playing around with that.

Joanne S said...

Found your blog last week and have been reading daily. Your posts are an equal mix of inspiration and information. I'm a painter who has hardly ever painted. Odd, but true.

I did paint yesterday and wiped off two of the three small (your idea) pieces and this morning I think I should have wiped off the third also.

So hard to paint bad stuff!

Anonymous said...

Jerry,
What are your thoughts about painters whose tones may be correct but still generate rather boring paintings? I'm thinking in terms of a lot of artists you see in American Artist Magazine.
Certainly your not suggesting tonal cotrol is the most important aspect of painting?

sixtyminuteartist said...

anonymous, I am saying that being able control your tones is the most important skill for a painter to learn--whether you make boring paintings with your skills is another matter. Jerry

Carol Hadfield said...

Wow - Yes - once again you have hit the spot. I started with charcoal and am battling with colour and the main problem is getting the tones right! Acrylic seems so garishly bright! Will try these neutral chromatic paints premixed you mentioned, may help a lot. Don't know if we get them in good old SA. I find that mixing with white makes things appear very chalky?
Once again thanks for all the inspirational help.

prophet said...

Hey Six-oh - thanks for stopping by and leaving the encouraging words for me. . . . Much appreciated.

I discovered a life application today from your tonal control posting, which you'll find at my "five - countdown resumes" post.

Tasha said...

Love your site! Just wanted you to know that I added your link to my blog.

Sadie said...

Thank you for all of your tips, ideas, books, etc. I really enjoy reading your blog and discovering ways to make myself a better artist.

lizajoker said...

What you say is so true!

I took a class on color once, and one of the toughest assignments we had was to create tonal scales. We started off with grays, creating a 12-step scale from dark to light. Then we picked a primary color, and we had to duplicate the tones from our grayscale. Then we repeated the process with a secondary and then a tertiary color. We were going a little crazy by the end of the assignment, but it really helped us develop tonal sensitivity.

Another exercise I have found to help me increase my tonal range in drawing/painting is to do a kind of "backwards" drawing. Cover a piece of paper with a nice layer of dark charcoal. Then take an eraser and "draw" highlights and lighter tones.

M.A. said...

Tone Rules!!!

Great article.

WLM Artist said...

I concur. Color is important, but value takes precedence.

Nana Dokua Amoako-Atta said...

Great stuff, very informative. encourages me to tackle my pastels again. could come out with something positive.
A well thought out blog site
thanks
nana

Nat said...

One of the things that is interesting about the pear in B+W is the tension between the neutral background and the right hand pear. There's a strong inclination in drawing and painting to outline the subject, which loses the push and pull as the values of the subject merge and shift with the background.

redredday said...

hi Jerry, such a nice surprise to see the comment you left for me! thank you for a very positive feedback and also introducing the works of Robert D'Arista. he is such a prolific artist! i love his drawings.

i've been happily reading your blog and really appreciating the time you take to share with us your art and thoughts/advice on painting and art in general.

i really love this study painting of the running dog as it is. so fluid and full of expression. looking forward to relish in your Hall of Fame painting! ;).

Michael said...

great writing (and art) today. Thanks for the review of tonal quality...I just looked at some of my stuff in black and white and it really woke me up. Thanks 60!

Troy said...

I wrote a comment about the cupcakes, but being new to making comments, am not sure if it got to you. I love your blog. Troy

gwadzilla said...

I just looked at the pictures...

I am going to go look at more of your paintings

mongoose1 said...

Jerry
I love the sense of movement on the Running Dog Study!

Steven said...

Jason Waskey's blog sent me your way... gotta tell yah, this is gold. Thanks for sharing your insight. Fantastic work.

TW12VE said...

"running dog" is amazing.

Manikandan said...

Hi nice blog .I need to post resumes .can anybody send links of that sites.
Thank you.........

Manikandan said...

Hi nice blog .I need to post resumes .can anybody send links of that sites.
Thank you.........

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