Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What are halftones?

I posted a Bouguereau (fron last night and talked about halftones and their subtlety. Several people in comments wrote that they were unsure just where the halftones were. Let me see if I can explain that. Below is a sphere labeled with the parts of the light. It is taken from a post I wrote in the late 15th century that you can read here.
Most simply understood, the halftones are part of the illuminated side of an object neither in the highlight or in the shadow. Because they are a part of the lights they are part of a family of values (that is degree of lightness or darkness) that are always , always, ALWAYS! lighter than anything in the shadow.

The handling of halftones is one of the niceties of painting where the fine draftsman shows his power. Well understood and handled halftones are a hallmark of a proficient painter. It takes some doing to handle them well, and the naive tendency is to overstate them.

Here is our Bouguereau again, from I think I will try to explain this by showing you where the halftones are n0t. I have dropped the head into black and white to simplify this a little bit. Halftones are a part of drawing and thus they remain even when the color is removed.

The little numbered arrows point to some of the shadows on this head. For instance number 6 indicates the mouth, a cavity that the light doesn't illuminate, and 5 points to a shadow cast by the ear. 3 points to the cast shadow alongside and below the nose. All of these being in shadow are DARKER than anything in the lights. The shadows are where the light is not striking the form. That is either the underside of something, a cavity like a nostril, or simply where the form is turned sufficiently away from the light that the light cannot reach it.


Above is our girl again. This time the little arrows are pointing to various highlights. These are the brightest areas where the form turns into a position where it, like a mirror, most effectively reflects the light it is receiving out towards the viewer. For instance 4 is the upper part of the chin, 5 is the cartilaginous tip of the nose and so forth. The highlights are the brightest values.

In between the highlights and the shadows is a varied topography created by the close modulation of the values OF THE LIGHT. The swellings and recessions of the form that are illuminated, though less than the highlights, are all halftones and the tell the story of the form as it curves away from the light until it suddenly turns and enters the world of the shadow.


Ok here is the head again, can you find the halftones now?


Brady said...

Great post. Bouguereau is so subtle it's hard to distinguish the shadow from halftones sometimes.

I always think the word halftone should be changed because it makes people think it refers to a single specific value halfway between the shadow and highlight. Instead of halftones as all of the values between the highlight and shadow line (or bedbug line.)

MCG said...

A lot of people have difficulty understanding the concept, and I wonder if it has anything to do with the word "tone" itself. "Tone" seems to register mentally as "dark". Elsewhere in this blog there is a post about making tints, shades and tones(add black).
I'm sure some will snicker at this mindtrick I'll share, but at the risk of ridicule I'll say that it keeps it straight for me these days. Whenever I see the word halftones I translate it to "halflights". it keeps it on the light side of things for me.
So the classic order of light runs in my mind like:
LIGHT: highlight, light light, middle light, darker light. HALFLIGHT(lighter, darker)
SHADOW: terminator, light shadow(reflected light), dark shadow(cast)
Thinking of "halftones" as "halflights" is helpful for me.

daniel said...

So is the center light a half tone that only appears on rounded forms?
By the way thank you so much for this blog it is such a big help.

phiq said...

Ah, so this is the secret knowledge that prevents one from painting faces as if they were all shiny leather!

@MCG - Indeed, terminology can obstruct understanding sometimes.

Karla said...

Wow that post was so very helpful. You have solved the mystery of the half-tone. I guess I always thought the half-tone was the bedbug line. oops!

Carina said...

I'm sorry, I'm even more confused now.

So the halftones are everything not-in-shadow BUT for the very highlights?

rahina q.h. said...

excellent post Stape... one thing that helps me during the underpainting is to have a ground that will be as dark as the lightest dark will be. this helps me evaluate which way to go as i develop the painting: anything in the lights will be lighter than this and anything in the darks will be this or darker. this has been ths simplest solution that i have found so far to prevent getting lost while painting. The question is when the colour goes on... underpainting is the solo but colour is the orchestra...aarrrgggh

Judy said...

I too thought the half tone was a smaller area just next to the bedbug line--it sounds like we should say halftones and mean plural tones--is that right?? Could you define it as the darker part of the light area? I like the idea of "half lights" too.

The hint about a ground that's in the half tones is a great idea--if I can figure it out in advance.

As usual Thank you! so helpful.

Philip Koch said...

Good stuff. Another way to think of this is Bouruereqau is using his light to build big, bold shapes. Keeping his halftones light allows you to sense the silhouette of the woman's jaw and skull.

Seeing is a very, very multifaceted animal. That's why it's good to read things like this blog. There's always another way to think about grasping the expressive core of what is visual. Guess that's why they call us "artists." said...

I am always asking it in the light (including half LIGHT) or is it in the shadow? It's really that simple.

Libby Fife said...

That was a great explanation. I particularly like the emphasis (the all caps) where you were strongly suggesting keeping the families seperate:)

Martha said...

I -finally- get it. Thank you.

Plein Air Gal said...

So ... at least in portraits, aren't the half-tones basically your local color (with some variations)? Or is that too simplistic?
If one were to reduce an image to gray scale to do a Grisaille painting using 5 values - let's just use a 5 point scale for simplicity - values 1 and 2 would be your shadows, value 5 would be your highlight, and values 3 and 4 would be your half-tones, no? Or am I missing something? But isn't value 2 then a half-tone dark - or do we just not use that term in referring to darks? I think I've got it, but then I think I'm confused - I'm not sure!

Lefteris C said...

The information on this blog is invaluable. Thank you for doing this. So I guess the artist makes a decision about the lightest part of the shadows and the darkest part of the halftones and then paints the rest of the values darker in the shadows and lighter in the halftones, making sure to keep the values in each group close to each other.

Lefteris C said...

After a bit more thought. I think a common mistake is to look for large areas of shadow in every portrait. Sometimes , like in this Bouguereau, almost all the face is in the lights. The left part of the face, for example, is a dark halftone, not a shadow. Is this correct Stape?

Rubysboy said...

This post sows confusion. if the halftones are everything that's neither a shadow nor a highlight, what, then, are the lights? the lights is a term normally used to refer to all the lights as distinct from all the shadows and the lights are normally thought to include highlights, average light, and half tones, where half tones are the darkest lights. Is there a good reason confuse readers by ignoring common usage?

circa said...

Hi Stape and all,
I'm a long-time lurker* and a friend/student of Patti Mollica's. Patti always requires a value study as a prelude to painting, and despite squinting, I still have trouble reducing my drawings to 3 values. I think it's the half-tone that still confuses me.

Like Plein Air Gal, I'm wondering if the halftone i is the "local color?"
Since the halftone is only slightly darker than the highlight, does that mean that on a greater than 3-value scale), halftone should be separated from the shadow by more than 1 value? In other words, that highlight, halftone and shadow are not necessarily separated by equal intervals (as Brady is implying...?)

Thank you for your answer, and for your incredibly generous, informative, and often hilarious, blog. Over the past couple of years, I've read every post, as well as Carlson, Payne, and the good old boys published by Dover, at your suggestion. If I spent as much time painting as I do reading, I'd be much further along!

mimitabby said...

Thank you. Now I understand. for me it was a problem of terminology. I want you to know that I save your blog for last, because you never fail to teach something, and I appreciate that very much. All artists like to toot their own horn, and I love to look at their work. but only you take the time to teach us a little something.

hagerstudios said...

Awesome clarification Stape!

I think much of the confusion people are having is semantics. The principle of keeping all the light values above all the shadow values is crystal clear and should be kept in the forefront, as that was the point of your original post.
"Over-modeled halftones" simply means allowing portions of your lights to cross over into shadow values. That's what we're all trying to avoid.

Good to stir this discussion up. It's a principle that can't be glossed over. Thanks as always!

billspaintingmn said...

Stape! you leave no stone unturned!
Exposeing 'gray areas' to the light so we can understand the halftones place and purpose is very helpful.
Knowing this is one thing, but to incorporate it into a painting is another.It makes the process a fun challenge, even if we screw up, we know we're on the right path and that's reasurring to continue the trip!
Back to the drawing board!

Karen Slagle said...

I've been struggling to understand how to see and record value since starting life drawing and painting classes. I am confused by the concept of pushing the darks darker than what I see on the model. I've been wondering if that is what Rembrandt did and Bouguereau did not. Or was the lighting on their models that different from each other. Also, is it easier to become a successful draftsman able to handle those halftones when you are using pencil rather than charcoal to study them? Charcoal is my nemesis.

Thanks for this blog. It's awesome!

Brady said...

@Circa: I re-read my comment and it's a little confusing. I wish I could show you in person what I meant, but I'll try to explain better here.

A highlight is the brightest spot in the painting or drawing.

A halftone is any value between the highlight, and the bedbug line.

So, there could be any number of halftone values from 1 up to the limits of human vision. (Which I think is about 100 steps.)

So lets say that your bed bug line is value 99 on a 100 value scale and that the highlight is value 1.
(Given a scale where black is 100 and white is 1.)

This means that you could have up to 98 values in the halftones. Since all of those values are between the highlight and the bedbug line, they are all halftones.

To put what I said into context with Stape's post you can put all values into two categories.

Highlights + halftones = Lights

Bedbug line + Reflected light = Shadows.

I hope that helps!

MCG said...

@Brady:(Bedbug line + Reflected light+cast shadow = Shadows) I'm just saying :]

willek said...

Very interesting, Stape and very revealing. In my weekly portrait group I always get there early to get a 3/4 front lighting situation. I avoid front lighting like the plague because it seems to flatten out the form. After these two posts I am rethinking this practice.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Tonight's post is about just that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am too old to change my terminology, but that makes good sense.

Stapleton Kearns said...

My head is spinning with all of the nomenclature that different people use for the same things. I don't know the answer to that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I hope so. My face is leathery enough already.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Tonight I shall return you to confusion.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Read tonight's post I hope I have clarified it some.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That sounds like it might be a good method.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Unfortunately it is both depends on how you are looking at it. I discuss that tonight out on the other side.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I hope they call us artists!

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is indeed that simple.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

Tonight I am going to get more complicated. I hope you still get it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Plein air;
I think for simplicity's sake the halftones refers to that which is in the lights only.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The important thing is to keep the two worlds separate.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I looked long and hard at that also. I would say it is a dark halftone.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Read tonight's post, I discussed that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think that interval can vary and does. Sometimes it is nearly imperceptible. But it always there.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, I do want to be useful.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Or it means dropping the value of your halftones to equal something in the shadow.

Stapleton Kearns said...

We all screw up. Routine.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Charcoal is a great medium are you using vine charcoal on real charcoal paper? Pencil is an excellent medium generally pencil draftsmen keep their halftones and shadows suppressed as pencil can get shiny if too much is applied.
I am not sure what you are asking on the Rembrandt- Bouguereau question.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Works for me!

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is a matter of taste, it does flatten out the forms, but shadows can cut up the forms so there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

Karen Slagle said...

It makes me feel better that there is so much discussion over one of the things I've been trying to figure out. Lefteris C may have touched on what I was wondering yesterday as far as painters making decisions .
I've tried to think of how to ask yesterday's question another way.....if Rembrandt and Bouguereau were sitting in front of the same model in the same light, could Rembrandt choose to go dramatically darker than Bouguereau even though the lighting on the model was closer to a Bouguereau painting. (Would Rembrandt choose to make the darks darker than what is actually in front of him and handle the halftones relative to that darkest dark. Or did Rembrandt actually have his models sitting in the dramatic lighting that we see in his paintings?) I feel like I have to make sense of that first to make dealing with the halftones make sense. That might not be any better than yesterday's question.

I signed up for your workshop in New Jersey so I'll try to figure out the problem and bug you about it then if I can!