Sunday, November 18, 2012

Value suppression , the apearance of nature and the" big look"

I have been frantically painting trying to get this years blue night picture out the door for a printing deadline. I have made one of these every year for about thirty years. Here I am though, lets see.................

A reader on the comments page recently asked me:
Please help my confusion on values. I have read and been taught to not use the full spectrum of values because it weakens the painting. Their instruction has been to narrow your values to three no more than four value groups by compressing the values together. By doing this you make a stronger pattern of shapes that holds together, especially from a distance. Please clarify. Looking forward to your response.

This is a big question and I may need more than a single post to answer it.

1)  There is the appearance of nature in light as it sits before you. I think I can readily discern and express about ten different values outside. Before the cast, as an atelier student I was taught with ten values. In practice I use maybe one or two less than that if I am trying to the the look of nature. When I teach, I generally try to point out the difference between nature and the students work. Most of the students I meet in workshops are struggling to get the image successfully and halfway accurately onto the canvas. That is the first skill that a student needs, transcription. This is not necessarily art, it is a skill and anyone can acquire it with some hard work.

Until a student has this ability it seems important to me, to help them "see" nature more clearly. I talk a lot about design, arrangement, color etc. but if I neglect to steer students closer to the look of nature I run the risk of teaching them "how I do things" rather than broader skills they can use themselves. So when I teach I would only suggest to the most advanced students that they paint their values any differently than they see them.

That artists who work in reduced numbers of values agree there are more values than they use seems clear, as they speak of compressing or limiting their values.

2) It is possible, perhaps desirable, to reduce the values in a design to get more unity of effect, a broader look and a clearer assembly of shapes. Usually the effect is one of a stronger, simpler arrangement. But, this is a lens  through which painter looks at nature, and not the appearance of nature itself. Compressing values, means to change them to something else, hopefully more desirable artistically.

This is a design method, and as such, a convention, a personal choice. That's OK, it is art after all, and the art lies in the choices we make about how  the painting will look more than in cold transcription. Below is a sphere with the parts of the light labeled on it.
The sphere above has five separate lights. A tree in light or a head or figure will generally need five separate values to explain itself. Where these five different values come from on the value scale, whatever size (but ten for the sake of this explanation) can be chosen and they could be derived from the middle of the scale or one end or even spread across its length from Stygian darkness to unalloyed white. I find it difficult to work effectively with fewer than five values. I  sometimes will design pictures using three premixed values, but when  I make that into a picture I feel the need to add a few more values here and there. Even this five value system precludes the representation of halftones. Each halftone (modeling in the lights) would add a separate value to the list. I don't present all of this to discourage the practice of suppressing or compressing values. This topic arose out of my listing problems that plague workshop students. I would suggest that the artist should first be able to render in  a full and not a truncated panoply of values before reducing their number.

4) I didn't hear the idea of compressing values until perhaps fifteen years ago, no doubt because of the enormous and beneficial influence of Richard Schmid. I learned something similar in the Gammell Studios though. It was  called the "BIG LOOK". The idea was this....Not to  cut up your big shapes with lots of varying values or details within them. One was to keep their shapes big, or uncluttered. Shapes of similar value would be  conjoined and darks or lights deliberately linked. All of these plus suppression of  detail gave a broader simpler look. Gammell often derided what he  called "looking into the shadows" that is allowing yourself  to refocus your vision  and examine separately from  the lights   the value  changes and detail within the shadows. That is the shadows  would be mistakenly painted as they appeared when examined individually and not as seen  in relationship to the entire scene including the  lights. This was seen as the enemy of the big  look.


Billy Guffey said...

Great post, Stape. I, along with throngs (pronounced throngs) of others, have been waiting patiently for more on values from you. I've heard you mention a new value exercise you have your students do now that you weren't doing when I took your Charleston workshop. Any insights into that?

Deborah Elmquist said...
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Deborah Elmquist said...

Your explanation was invaluable and I greatly appreciate you taking the time to share your insights about my question. I needed the reminder that we teach students to see what is actually seen in the full value range BEFORE they are instructed how to artistically interpret what they see through value compression. Second, not only has Richard Schmidt influenced the practice of painting with limited values but Quang Ho teaches this idea. He calls it "local tone" or value structure which is one of the visual approaches along with light and shadow. I look forward to the value exercise you mentioned earlier.

Unknown said...

It was great meeting you and this painting in person. Glad I could be of assistance.

Judy P. said...

I've been awaiting this explanation of values, and it is so clarifying. I'm getting a better handle on values because I can see, when in my broken color handling, I start fracturing the larger form.
At my easel in MN we discussed briefly my concerns about compressing values, avoiding white, shifting to a lower key for better color etc. You were kind and funny and a little exasperated when you said "just paint it like you see it".

JonInFrance said...

Thanks, Stape

oreokookie said...

Excellent point about the Big Look....took me years to realise that abuot the shadow areas having a separate tonality then the lighted areas.....and that was funny about the "tongue depressor" brushes!...they make good dusters for around the studio though!

Albert. S said...
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