Saturday, November 30, 2013

Tonal landscape drawing

A snowy road near Rochester, Vermont

Oh, here I am!  I have been traveling, teaching workshops and always painting. I get e-mail routinely, asking as civilly as possible, "wheres the next post? That makes me feel useful. Here it is.

When last I wrote, I talked about confusing color with value. I see that a lot when I teach. Students add color instead of lowering the value of an object. The shadow side of a green tree becomes greener, not darker in value, the deepest shadows down within the tree become greener still.

I have just finished teaching half a dozen workshops in New England, Mississippi, and in North Carolina. As I taught those, I kept in mind that I wanted to find a way to make the idea easy to grasp for my students. Here is what I think might work.

Many of you have programs on your computer like Photoshop, or photo correction programs that came preloaded into your computer, or installed by your digital camera as part of its software package. There are two adjustments always offered, there are zillions more besides including one that makes your photo look like it was done by Monet, well sort of. But, the one above is important, this slider controls lightness and darkness push the slider one direction it gets darker and the other it gets lighter. This slider is controlling values.

Below is the second important control offered you, this is for saturation, or the amount of color. Like the slider above, if you push it one way the colors become more intense, push it the other way and they become less colored or grave. This slider doesn't make the colors darker or lighter, just more or less colored.

The upper slider, the contrast or "values" slider is the one I want you to think about right now. It is essential to get the values right in a painting. Values are a part of drawing and help make the vital skeleton that holds up your image. The picture "lives" in this arrangement of light and dark spots and lines. A picture presented in only black and white is still perfectly recognizable. Worry about values first and foremost. If you get the values right, under control, or telling your story, the colors can be applied to them.

 Some thoughts on tonal drawing

A drawing can be made in paint. The drawing in a given painting can be off, because a painting contains drawing, even if it is not a line based presentation.

When I use the word drawing in front of workshop students, a good number of them ask if I mean a pencil drawing on the canvas.When they start to paint I see them putting a black line drawing on their canvas with every line darker than anything before them.The lovely forms of nature are represented with lines as black and thick as sewer pipe. 
Drawing can be tonal as well as linear. That is, it can be without lines entirely. On location the tonal drawing will generally look more like nature than a linear drawing. I recomend learning to paint the landscape in a tonal fashion.There are a bunch of ways to lay in a painting outside, but this is the one I recommend you learn first. I have set many struggling students to the monochrome lay in and they have been able to get a better grasp of the landscape than before. The lay in can be done as a blur and tightened up as the painting progresses. Oil paint lends itself to that handling, nature routinely looks that way more than it does a line drawing, and tonal drawing encourages establishing the largest areas of a painting and decorating those with the smaller forms. The painter develops  the largest shapes and progresses downwards to the smallest.


Here is a 16 by 20 tonal drawing (in oil paint) on a canvas. I don't always lay in paintings this way, but I often do. This was painted with only burnt sienna , and a little touch of ultramarine in the darkest accents. Most importantly though, it is transparent. There is no white paint on the canvas. The second you touch that white, you lose the ability to easily manipulate your shapes and design. As long as you are working transparently you can always pull passages out with a paper towel to correct your mistakes.

 I worked on this one session outside, and then a little in the studio when I got home. I will probably take it out again and work on it with a few more colors, although given the mood of the thing I may limit myself to earth colors or maybe a Zorn  palette. But often, I switch to color as soon as I have the whole picture up and working in monochrome. Maybe it will become a sunset in the studio. I could call it "Novembers apples"

A photograph of your house will look more like your house than it's blueprints. Photographs when taken outdoors, are dominated by  tones more than by lines. Photographs are really just arrangements of different areas of value that cause us to believe we are seeing "nature" The camera doesn't insert a line at the edge of something because it is there, but not visible in nature.
A purely tonal drawing, that is, one without any lines can look flaccid or blurry. There have been lots of soft and dreamy pictures done of young women in interiors , without many hard edges. The old movie star photos looked that way too. They put some kind of goo on their camera's lenses.

I Photoshopped this starlet a little to show you what a purely tonal presentation looks like. There are painters who work to get this look in front of nature. If you paint exactly what you see when you squint you will get pretty close to this look too.  I call it
When I was a student  I made a lot of still life, and some landscapes that were all soft like this. You can sable all of the edges in a painting to flow nearly invisibly into one another. It can give either a   refined and elegant look, or at other times ( in my case) just look blurry and lacking form.

 There are lines in nature though. Even were they not, it would be good to introduce a few of them, for the sake of a more varied design. Lines are definition. They provide visual relief from all of those tonal areas. Rocks and fine branches present as lines in nature. Tree trunks are more commonly a broad upright band of value that has an end on either side where something behind them begins, but there is not generally a firm visible dark line there. This is an example of one shape of a different value meeting another shape off a differing value, rather than a drawn line a pixel wide. How emphasized those sorts of meetings of edges are is a place where lots of artistic finesse comes in. Control over the relative hardness and softnesses of the way various forms meet is a little like the focus of a camera lens. It can be used to attract or divert the attention of the viewer from a passage. It can make forms go around (like in the lost and found lines in a woman's portrait by Sargent. It might be used to create distance, or accent the subject of the painting. Handling of edges might make a whole corner of the painting say "move along folks, nothin to see over here"

 Bare trees in autumn give some nice lines. Stone walls and the edges of fields suggest them. Houses and barns in a landscape install some lines and squares to contrast with the rounded and more chaotic shapes of pure nature.You might set up your easel on a village street. Man made stuff is liney. Landscape painters have liked the ability to mix the organic shapes of nature among the linear shapes of architecture.
 I think that a drawing that has an  arrangement of lines AND tones is optimal, as much art can be contrived by the relationship between the two.

Above, is a John Constable as an example of "tonal "landscape drawing. When I was a kid I would have said  "its been shaded in". It is a clear and solid.  It has a strength and skeletal structure provided by some lines, some the meeting areas of adjacent areas of differing values, but there are lines defining those trees for instance.

  even with all the linearity going on in urban environments, in between those lines are still areas of tone. I saw this on Facebook the other night.

 Louigi Loir 1845-1916

This painting has a lovely mix of hard and soft edges. It is full of soft tones that are accented with the hard lines of the guy in the foreground and the lamp post to his left. The other hard edges and darks are clustered along an arch shaped bridge that joins the two. That isn't something that the artist found one evening and said "look at that I will paint it!" He made the scene have that subterranean geometry on purpose.

There, does that make them easier to see?



This years workshop will be held January 18 through 20.  I really have a great time doing this. It has been my favorite event of the year ever since I started doing it. I have taught a lot of workshops, but with Snowcamp I feel like I broke the code. The scenery is fabulous, the inn is now adept at anticipating our needs and the food is good too. The inn keepers are now old friends and the inn feels like a second home to me now as I have been there so many times. The inn is informal and a little funky, here is a picture of the place below. How old New England is that?
 The workshop will begin Saturday morning and end Monday evening. That's three days. I charge $300.00 per person, a $150.00 down payment and $150.00 final payment to be paid at the event. If you want to sign up, Click here.
Snowcamp usually fills, so if you want to come, sign up. The class is limited to twelve. So every one gets plenty of personal attention. Each morning I do a demo and then in the afternoon the students paint and I run from easel to easel teaching each student individually. I have several painting exercises that will help build the students skills in landscape painting that I work in to the schedule. We meet for breakfast and dinner, the inn provides us with sandwiches etc. for lunch so we don't lose much time from our work day.  Before dinner is served I do a slide show lecture on design and snow painting. I am working on a new evening presentation with a history of snow painting and I will compare the methods of various snow painters. One of the important things I teach about snow painting is the opalescence color of snow. I will show you a system for creating the look of snow in light with broken color. Snow is not white, but bring a big tube you will still need it.
 The camaraderie is an important part of the workshop and we will all be good friends before the workshop is over. Snowcamp is a lot of fun, and I hope to teach you as much as I possibly can in the three days it runs. I can save you YEARS of screwing around! This is as intense an experience as I can make it and you will do little else but paint, eat and sleep while you are there.


Gail Hayton said...

Stape, Love your blog. I discovered it back in August and have spent considerable time reading all your posts. Quite a lot to digest. Can you please clarify what your students SHOULD be doing versus what they are doing. To lower the value of a passage are they adding black when they should be switching to a new color? I found one of your ask Stape posts where you changed values in a tree, but didn't say what colors you used to do so. I hope my question makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Wow! A nice and hearty post for Thanksgiving! Wonderful! This is the type of substance that can feed an artist for a lifetime!

Two of my best paintings were done with this tonal painting technique. I have to continue efforts to use it more frequently as it really is a great way to eliminate line drawing, to work on form and value.

Thanks Monsieur Stape!

Susan Renee Lammers said...

Hi Stape! Thank you. That made it more easy to understand. I hope you are painting snow somewhere!

Unknown said...

I discovered your blog too late to participate in your North Carolina Workshop and I hope you plan on returning! I absolutely love your blog!! Thank you!!

Peter Yesis said...

Stape- Just signed up for Snowcamp!!! Looking forward to meeting and painting with you.