Friday, 27 July 2012

Teaching Yourself to See Tone

Until they get their eye in, a lot of art students find it hard to accurately portray tonal (value) differences in their art. In other words, the darks are not dark enough, the lights are not light enough or the mids are too light, too dark or not rich enough in colour.

Even experienced artists can lapse from time to time if they don't keep a discerning eye on the tones in their work. Some artists also find that it's harder to see the full range of tones as they get older - even more reason to keep tone in mind in the creation of any artwork.

Here are some quick pointers to not only correct the tone when needed but also teach (or remind) yourself how to see tonal changes:

1. Take a piece of white cardboard, draw a long rectangle and divide it into 10 equal sections. Paint the leftmost section white, and paint the rightmost section black. Mix a small amount of white and an equal amount of black together and paint the middle section this mid-grey. Then gradually paint in lighter greys as it goes towards white and darker greys as it goes towards black. You should end up with a scale, which progresses evenly from white to black.

This is firstly a good practise exercise to get familiar with relative differences. If you like to draw, it's a great one to do with pencils. But the real use comes in when you use it to measure the tone on your subject and compare it to the tone on your artwork. You may be surprised at the difference.

2. Make a black-and-white copy of your work (e.g. by photocopying the original, a scan or a photo) and really look at the tones. Are they really representative of your subject? Do they change evenly on round objects? Are your blacks and whites pure? Sometimes colour really distorts our perception of tone, so a black-and-white version can really give you a sense of what's really going on.

3. Learn to paint using the grisaille approach- a purely tonal underpainting in only one colour (hue). This will get the tones straight in your head before you add colour (or alternatively, leave it as a study to refer to as you paint the final work).

Tone is one of the basic building blocks in representative styles of art. No matter how beautiful the strokes or finish, without this solid foundation, an artwork won't come together. Poor tones can warp and image as you walk away from it, or mean that the artwork fails to capture the viewer's attention. Moreover, incorrect tones will greatly impact on believability, in many cases, even more than proportions. Concious measurement of tone and practise using the range of tonal values is key to successful works.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

3 of the Most Common Issues in Student Works

While on a rainy day mission for art supplies today, I walked past a few students’ canvas works on display out the front of the shop. Across more than ten artists, there were three things consistently holding back the works from realism or believability – tone, colour mixing and form (shaping). These are some of the most common issues amongst all art students and can define the difference between a student and a professional.

A lot of the techniques to address these issues aren’t readily available to art students. Many books don’t cover these either because the writers don’t know, can’t explain the issues well or because they’re well guarded secrets in this competitive industry.

In a nutshell, tone means the range of lights and darks. A lot of people’s works don’t reflect the full range of tone, either because they don’t see the full range, or don’t know how to mix their colours well, creating  greys, muddy colours and blanched white colours instead of clean, strong mid and dark tones.

The most common colour mixing mistake is to mix across colour systems before having a good working knowledge of how the colours will blend. Colour mixing is a complex science, and more than I can go into at this point, however, to keep it to one rule – only mix warms with warms and cools with cools, til you have extensive experience mixing across. Make a decision early on which way you want to go and stick to it.

The third issue I saw today was form. Many students find it hard to conceptualise the objects they are painting as three-dimensional, and/or, can’t translate the three dimensions of the objects onto a two dimensional flat space. The result is flat work with a lack of believability.

Think about how our eyes work. Our eyes are set up to measure depth quickly and accurately. Every day we navigate through rooms full of furniture, around shops full of products, through hurried, unpredictable crowds or around moving trains, buses or cars. Our eyes are well trained to search for the cues that tell us where the object is located in space – how far across, how far up and how far back, (X, Y and Z axes), as well as the dimensions of the object itself - its size, depth, texture and even weight. To trick our eyes, we need to have these cues well aligned, particularly when working on a flat, two-dimensional plane.

The easiest way to tell our eyes that an object has depth is to show part of the side of that object. Avoid sharp edges as this makes the objects look flat, like a paper toile. This is particularly the case for rounded objects - rounded edges don’t end quickly in reality so don’t paint them as hard lines. To show the side, it may be necessary to adjust your objects or your point of view slightly, otherwise, smudge your edges just enough to suggest that not all parts of the object end at the front.

While this is a quick overview, most students will find that improving these three areas - tone, colour mixing and form - will have a huge impact on their work.