At first glance, the concept of tone may seem “vague and insignificant”; but it is one of the most important concepts in art. It seems easy, but it is difficult in practice. Why? Because “tonality” is an optical phenomenon; and, as any optical illusion, is perceived as “not real”. Our brain does not acknowledge it. For the human beings, color is important (we choose clothes by color; we judge fruit by how ripe it is, etc.), but noticing tone often seems unnecessary. We assign significance to distinguishing green traffic light from red, but we absolutely don’t care which of them is darker and which is lighter. It does not even occur to us to compare.
The concept of “color” seems easy. Identifying a color requires no effort at all. We can determine the color of an apple at a glance. Anyone can name a color that they are looking at: “this pear is green”, etc. On the other hand, distinguishing the tonal value of the pear (how dark or how light it is) requires a certain effort and a comparison, in relationship to something else. We can only notice object’s tonality through intentional looking and only by holding it in the same gaze with something else. But in order to know to gaze in this comparing way, we must be aware of tonality’s existence, because, otherwise, tonal value is naturally, instantly and without our awareness, automatically “dismissed” by our brain. Our brain, early on in our life, learns to ignore tone because it is not “valuable” information that matters for our safety, survival, etc. In early childhood, we un-learn to see; seeing gets replaced with “knowing”. So, the brain of the artist has to re-learn to see.
Tonal awareness almost never comes to an art student intuitively; it has to be introduced by a teacher. Tone is what you don’t know you don’t know. This is the case of when “what you don’t know” becomes the chasm between your vision and your ability to effectively communicate that vision to your viewer.
Seeing tonal value requires a conscious effort, based on the awareness of the tone’s existence. Why such a simple concept as tone is so hard to hold in our attention? Because tonality actually interferes with the “knowing”: a white object may look black – but we know, it is white, not black, therefore it is white to us, no matter how it appears to be. Unless you are an artist, you don’t need to worry about that illusion.
Tonal property of color is often different, or even opposite to what we expect it to be, know it to be, or assume it to be. The difficulty with our perception of tone is that it 100% depends on the light – when the light changes – the tone changes with it. That’s why, to our brain, tonality is unreliable. Tonal value is such an impermanent property of an object, that it can not be stated without looking, it is only true in this moment:: for instance, a lemon may look white under the bright light, or may appear black against the light.
Here is an example that demonstrates this difficulty with perception: when we look at an object, its color – that we think we can so effortlessly name – is nothing more than our “knowledge” of it, not what we actually see. For example, we say that the apple is red, even when it looks violet at twilight. So, we actually see the violet apple, but we know “it is red”. Our brain effortlessly subtracts the “blueish veil” from the red apple and “restores” the “true color”. So, we see what we think we see, not what we see. The irony is, that to us, tone does not seem real, even though it is how we actually see; but the color seem real, even though it is not what we see with our retina.
For the artist, a color can be perceived only through its tone. During studio training, artists begin to understand that “optical illusions” are the true impression on the retina, the image true to how our retina captures it. This is what “learning to see like an artist” means.
What helps to understand “tone” and “color” is a glimpse into what color is. To understand these two “simple issues” (tone and color), you must at first realize how complex they are. Art is similar to science; the artist must look deeper into things, to understand them, to be able then to see, in order to express her vision.
Color is an optical illusion, a sensation aroused in our brain. An impression of a certain color is created in the eye, when the light, reflected by a surface, enters our pupil as a certain frequency of the wavelength: a shorter wavelength, or a more frequent “bombardment” of the retina – and we see blue color; a less frequent – and we see orange color, etc. When no light is reflected back – we see black, and when multiple wavelengths are reflected – we see a pale color or white.
As color is produced – or revealed – by the light reflected from a surface. Artists see the color of a red apple as a fleeting impression – what it seems to be at the moment: in the morning it is pink, in the daylight – bright-red, in the twilight – purple or brown, at night – black. Which is the true color? Answer: there is no “true color”, just like there is no “true temperature”. Temperature and color are both energy, and both depend on the light: a rock is cool in the morning, hot in mid-day, cold at night. We accept the fact that temperature changes, but we perceive color as a permanent attribute of an object, just like shape and texture. You can look into the science of color on the Internet.
Artists treat color and tone as one complex quality that requires intentional looking.
A person, who has never had a chance to have formal training in fine art, may be skeptical about “artistic seeing”: “Artists like to be treated as complex and mysterious, more sensitive than others; maybe they do possess talent, but they like to sound vague and over-complicate simple things, like color”; “Color is color, I see what I see; when it’s dark, everything becomes darker – it’s not complicated. I have no problem seeing that shadows are darker, I can see the difference between dark and light, I can certainly see tone; and I am aware that colors change, depending on the light. I don’t need “formal artistic training” to teach me that”.
Yes, at first glance, it seems clear. But without the experiential encounter with tone, through art-making at the easel, with a teacher helping you to see, any information about “tonal value” fails to become your usable, “active vocabulary”.
Approximately here, from this point in this article, any of my further attempts to explain why the non-artist is blind to tonal values, will meet resistance from your brain, and, unless you are engaged in drawing or painting, your brain will be “annoyed” with further explanations, seeing them as an absurd, ambiguous gibberish. Continue reading and see if you are able to make sense of it.
To the artist, tone is the “crown jewel” of artistic mastery. Tonality, however, absolutely can not be taught and understood theoretically, but only through artistic practice, accompanied by teacher’s guidance. Even though in an art class, tonal awareness is taught through language, the true understanding of what tone is, is only possible when this information is relevant to your practice, i.e. when the information is delivered at the moment of observation, while you are engaged in the act of painting or drawing from observation. Practicing painting on your own may result in tonal awareness, but not necessarily will: many self-taught artists, painting all their life, have been unaware of tonal values.
Here are a few examples of such “gibberish” that an analytical mind of a non-artist will dislike:
1) ”Color is nothing, tone is everything; when I run out of red, I paint it blue.” (Picasso);
2) To see the tonal value you must turn off your brain.
3) We see not what we see but what we think we see.
4) This white does not look white; if you make it less white, it will look more white.
5) Dark colors in the light are lighter than light colors in the shadow.
Does all of it make sense?
One of the cardinal differences between a Great Master and a mediocre artist is the tonal awareness. For a professional, it is easy to identify among artists those who don’t “see” tonal values. Understanding of the tonal values is equally important for any reality-based art – two-dimensional (painting and drawing) as well as three-dimensional (sculpture). In order to learn to see and depict a tonal value of color, one must learn how to look (in art, even “looking” requires a specific technique!). You can read a lot of books and articles, trying to understand tonal values and still only have a blurry idea about how artists see, or you can join an art class where they teach it – and not only transform your understanding of how art is made, but uncover your own artistic potential.
I will be posting a detailed, step-by-step instruction how to stage at home a special exercise, that will help you better understand what artists do. If you’d like to enhance your understanding of tone, gather 10 to 12 various size and shape boxes and arrange them on a dark solid background. You can create a miniature setup on a table, with small boxes (matches, for example), and have a desk lamp to illuminate them from above.
When I started writing this blog, I first thought that this statement (Einstein’s) was reflection on me. But it also applies to you as an artist. You have to understand the tonal values to the point that you can explain it to your viewer without the viewer understanding the concept. Tonal values is the only thing that matters in rendering the form. Tone is what Picasso meant, when he said: “When I run out of red, I paint it blue”. He was talking about the tonal value of color.
In my current series of classes I will be covering how tonal value is used in the two-dimensional art to create volume, shape, distance, rhythm and balance.
Now I understand why. By substituting the human form with the boxes, I simplified the rounded volumes of the real body with the angular forms, showing the facets of each segment of the body: the head, the shoulders, the arms, the torso, the hips, the legs.
This exercise helps the understanding of the tonal values by making it simple to see the facets through the use of the cubistic shapes, thereby simplifying the expression of form to a manageable number of tonal values. I took a complex concept to make it simple. I simplified it by using boxes.
Curvaceous form, such as live reclining female model, has a limitless number of “facets” (surfaces are referred to as “facets”), whereas a square or rectangular box has only three surfaces that can be seen by the viewer at any one time.
It made me realize how brilliant the Einstein‘s statement was – of taking a concept and making it simple to explain a complex concept. in how the Great Masters had this tremendous understanding of how simplifying the form allows for a complex art be executed.
My point was to simplify the form, and it worked. From an 8-year old student Masha from St. Petersburg, just learning English, all the way up to my most experienced students, who painted in access of 20 years – everyone found this exercise interesting, challenging and enlightening, coming out with a deeper appreciation of tonal value.
This is the technique, used by the 15th-century Masters to train their apprentices.
The objective was to use cubistic shapes construct the human form.
When the students entered the studio and saw the boxes arranged on the floor on black velvet, they anticipated an assignment in the style of Picasso [cubist image], but I introduced them to the Old-Masters’ technique, an approach of the classic XV – XVI-century art training.
I intended to demonstrate how the Great Masters taught their apprentices. The concept of drawing the human form as “facets” was applied long before Cubists. Artists observed that an object appears three-dimensional due to how it looks divided by the light and shadow. To express the form, they drew a faceted version of any curvaceous shape, simplifying the body to the basic geometry [Einstein]: with this approach, a sphere, for example, would be drawn as a cube. To depict how the light changes the tone, and the tone would express the volume.
A human head, sketched as a cube, provided a very important simplified tonal expression of the form. The dark and light facets also allowed the artist to organize his composition rhythmically.
Why render a spere as a cube? Such faceted rendering of a sphere – its top surface lit from above, side surfaces in semi-shade, and the bottom surface darkened by the shadow, – gave the artist the ability to express the form in 3D. “construct” multi-figured compositions, in a consistent light, producing a great illusion of the 3D. [a real object in the spot-light, or video of me drawing it]
To teach his students, German artist Albrecht Durer (15th-16th century) produced such cubistic-looking drawings of faces and figures, that resemble the 20th-century art by Braque or Picasso! [Durrer]
It is the light that reveals the dimensionality of every object around us, visually “sculpting” the form. It is the tone (made by a darker or lighter color) that creates the same 3-D illusion on paper or canvas. [students art from the class]
The purpose of replacing a live model with the boxes will be especially appreciated by the students in the following class, when they are drawing a live model, reclining on black velvet in the same pose, illuminated by a spot-light: students will begin to see how the surfaces of the model’s body change tonally depending on their orientation towards the light source.
Having connected in their mind, how the slant of a facet, angled to the light, thus acquiring a particular tonality, the students will gain the most important skill of tonal awareness. They will be able to express the volume by means of light.
Structure sometimes is not very obvious especially in a voluptuous body. It’s easy to skip seeing the tone: the eye is overwhelmed by the amount of visual information. Preoccupied with creating the rounded form, artists often replace tonal expression of volume with blending and rounding.
When you look at a person, what you see first is her eyes, the texture of her skin, her facial expression. In art, when you start a drawing or a painting, you need to temporarily ignore these features and focus on the structure. But the very first issue that you have to deal with is composition. It is worthwhile to, temporarily, forget about fine details, in order to construct the composition, mapping it out of more-or-less generalized shapes. In that initial phase of work, the contrast provided by the light and dark shapes, can help you visualize your intended picture.
You can try this exercise on your own – gather several boxes, one large for the bottom, one medium for the torso, 8 elongated boxes for the legs and arms, small box for the head, and, with the light from above, you can practice this Old-Masters’s approach or the Cubist’s style.
Please feel free to post comments or ask questions.