Tuesday, March 22, 2011

About the subtlety of halftones

William Bouguereau courtesy artrenewal.org

My Dearest Stape;
Can you please address the magic behind the half tones? As I grow as an artist, I find little written about the importance of them, and how to use them correctly. I truly need advice here!
Love!............................ Ms. Darlene Lubriderm

That's a big topic. I will throw out a few pointers. The painting above is a great example of beautifully managed halftones. Here are some bullet points on halftones;
  • The halftones ARE A PART OF THE LIGHTS!
  • Look at the painting above and notice that the halftones (those parts of the light that approach the shadow and explain it's structure) are always way lighter than the shadow. They are lighter than the reflected lights.
  • The most common drawing error is to represent them darker than they are, to overstate them. This instantly destroys the illusion of form and gives the drawing a dirty look. If you walk through any art school you will find endless pads of crudely drawn figures from life drawing class bearing exactly this fault. The models look like they are wearing rubber wetsuits.
  • This overmodeling happens because the tendency is to compare them to the value of the rest of the lights, that is, they look darker than the lights and in order to make them look darker, the tyro overstates them. If they are compared to the entirety of nature they will appear in the proper value. The "big" look of nature is more valuable in comparison that a piecemeal approach. Nowhere is this more vital in obtaining the proper values for halftones.
  • Look at the subtle value changes about the cheek and around the mouth of the painting above, see how subtle those transitions are? They are enough to turn the form, but they don't chop up the large presentation of the lights. They are a small variation in the value of the lights and only that, they are not part of a different light.
  • If you squint at the Bouguereau above the halftones almost disappear. Delicacy is the key. Understate your halftones and you will usually find they are about right. Never paint them any value that is found in your shadows. Often the addition of just enough color to make them different from the highest lights will drop their value sufficiently to work.


NPMartin said...

Ahhh, thank you for the interesting read!
This has stumped me for a long time also. My paintings always had this dirty look but I could never figure out just why.

billspaintingmn said...

Stape! Those bullets hit the target for me.
To make a better painting, it's best to know what I'm doing, and do it!

My3Starz said...

Stape! What is a half tone? I mean I presume it's the half way point between the darkest and lightest areas, but that would seem to be darker than delicate forms in the face-can you define for me? The light shadows in the face? Are they the halfway points within the lights and separately the half way tones within the darks? Please define.
a m y

Paul Foxton said...

> If they are compared to the entirety of nature they will appear in the proper value. The "big" look of nature is more valuable in comparison that a piecemeal approach.

I think that's a really perceptive observation which must have come from a lot of experience with handling values. Value relationship problems can happen right across a piece of work when values are compared 'piecemeal,' as you say, without relating them to the whole I think.

I've found I do that a lot, and have been giving this much thought lately. I've come to the conclusion that we can have quite a lot of freedom with the value scheme of a piece overall. The values can be compressed in a variety ways, low or high key, compressing the lower values more or the other way round. Harold Speed talks about this in 'The Practice and Science of Drawing.' He talks about compression mostly in the darks, painting 'down from the lights' which he says Rembrandt is a good example of. This approach makes for darker pictures overall, with light areas that really pop out. Then he describes the opposite approach, painting up from the darks, which makes for a lighter painting overall. Impressionist paintings can often a good example of this approach I think. Paintings done like this tend to have a feeling of being suffused with light. In both cases the overall range from light to dark in the picture can be the same, but the half tones will be much lower in the range in the 'top down' approach, and higher in the 'bottom up' approach. the Bouguereau example looks more like 'bottom up' to me, making for lighter half tones overall.

Personally I'm coming round to thinking that it's the consistency of how the values are treated that's the key to getting a convincing value scheme.

Stape, you must come across this compression problem quite a lot painting outdoors I would think? That the value range of the subject being often outside the range of paint?

willek said...

Great post, Stape, but why did you select that particular Bougereau for an example. It seems the range of values in the subject is very narrow and the shadow area is so minimal. This must be north light as shadow demarcation is also vague. Would not a harder lit subject with light raking across a forehead or a cheek have been a better example?

Mark Heng said...

Great point about dirty art school drawings! Yeah, the models end up looking like burn victims or trapped miners...
Any advice on organizing your palette to handle the halftones? It's so easy to make a horrible mess of it!

billspaintingmn said...

I had to come back and look at the Bougueraeu some more. I think this is one I've never seen.
Is this one of the 100 important
artists on your list? I hope so, I have always admired his work.

Anonymous said...

Stape, Great post!
I've heard this term a lot lately, and I must confess that I am still somewhat fuzzy on it's exact meaning.
So if I understand this correctly, there are three values in the lights: the flesh in light (or local color), the highlight, and the halftone? So the halftone would be the darkest value in the lights?
Is the term "halftone" a pretty universal term, by that I mean does everybody use it the same way?

Mimi said...

I'm dense. Can you point to the halftones?

Celeste Bergin said...

I am reminded of a good story told to me by a (now) accomplished painter. He said that when he was an art student he was in a life painting session and the instructor came up behind him and said "good, now place your darkest darks". Later the instructor returned to the student and said (with a sigh) ....I meant the darkest dark you see on HER (gesturing to the model) not the darkest dark that you OWN (gesturing to his palette).
haha. I love that story.
Thanks for the article. I have been very guilty as charged of those too dark shadows. I'm working on it.

barbara b. land of boz said...

You are truly on a roll now. All this spring fever is a good time to look at the changing landscape.
Thank you for the reminder on values. The Bouguereau is quiet beautiful. So soft and delicate.

Unknown said...

"If you squint at the Bouguereau above the halftones almost disappear. Delicacy is the key."

THAT I will remember. Squinting (delicacy) is the key!

Unknown said...

I haven't seen this Bouguereau before. It ranks up there with the most beautiful portraits I've ever come across. wow.
Wonderful insight about the halftones. That they are part of the LIGHT is something I had not considered.

Linda Tracey Brandon said...

Terrific post. You can really see what Stape is talking about if you: 1. copy this photo to your computer, 2. greyscale it in Photoshop and 3. posterize to 5 values. Notice how those values are massed - each of the values are(generally)in distinct shapes and are "connected" instead of "spotty".

Anonymous said...

Hi Stape,
A friend stopped by on her way home from a week painting in Scottsdale w/ Rose Frantzen. She showed me the paintings and the last one just gave me goosebumps the halftones were so beautiful the flesh looked alive! She said if Rose needed to cool the fleshtone she would take the color (viridian?) and add white until it was the same value as the warmer fleshtone before adding. It immediately reminded me of your advice to make several colors of white in the same value and lay them down together. The effect is of transparent flesh even though the paint is quite opaque. This is a higher plane than where I am, but so inspiring to use in improving my work.
The quality of your blog just gets better and better! Terry

Stapleton Kearns said...

Are you making dirty pictures?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I left one in the chamber for myself. Don't push me!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I went after that question tonight.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't really think about that too much, but I work up off the bottom, almost always.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I chose that because his handling of halftones is so flawless and delicate.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Sometimes I premix them for figures. I will do a post on that, but not soon.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes he will be on the 100 list.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I hopefully will answer your question tonight.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Tonight, I will point!

Stapleton Kearns said...

everything is relative, at least in a painting.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, is it a spring roll?

Stapleton Kearns said...

AS soft as breath!

Stapleton Kearns said...

That's where they live, in the light.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I only have photoshop express, so I can't do that, but it must be very nice!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I wish I could have taken that workshop.