Losina Art Center: Offering Art classes in San Diego since 2006


Tonal Value

This week I will be covering how the Old Masters taught tonal value to their apprentices.

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 the tone often seems useless and unnecessary. We assign significance to distinguishing the green traffic light from the 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  – comparing it to something else, seeing it in relationship to other colors. We can only notice object’s tonality through intentional looking and only by holding it in the same gaze with something else. (All artists learn to see the tone, but do you know that even very experienced artists need to be reminded to “look at the tonal value of color”? Tonal value is the brain’s “blind spot”).

In order for an artist to remember to gaze in this “comparing way”, we must learn to become aware of tonality’s existence, because, otherwise, tonal value is naturally, instantly, without our awareness, is 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.

What is “tone” (or “tonality”, or “tonal value”)? It is very simple: tone is how dark or how light the object is – there seems to be no complexity here. But in reality, tone is too ephemeral and often is not so obvious at all. 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 dark 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, but is still perceived as yellow.

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 their 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.

Color is produced – not “revealed” – by the light reflected from a surface. Artists see the color of a red apple as a “fleeting impression” – as what it seems to be at the moment. In the morning the apple is pinkish-red, in the daylight – bright-red, in the twilight – purple or brown, at night – black. Which is its true color? The answer is: there is no “true color” – just like there is no “true temperature”. “Temperature” and “color” are of the same nature – they are energy, and both are produced by the light: a rock is cool in the morning, hot in mid-day, cold at night. In our perception we accept the fact that temperature can change, but we perceive color as a “permanent attribute” of an object, just like its shape or texture (if you want to learn more about the nature of color, search the Internet for the “science of color”).

Artists treat color and tone as one complex quality that requires intentional looking.

A person, who has never had any formal training in fine art, may be skeptical about the necessity of such formal training, or the validity of “artistic seeing”, or the complexities of the tone. I think, there is a common opinion about artists in general: “Artists are a different breed, but they cultivate the impression of being “complex” and “mysterious”, they claim to be more “sensitive” than others. I admit, they possess talent, but why do they have to sound so vague and over-complicate simple things, like color! Color is color, there is nothing to it. I can see color; I can see tone: 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 tonality; and I am aware that colors change, depending on the light. I don’t need “formal artistic training” to teach me that”.

Yes, at the 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 a slightly absurd, pretentious, 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 introduced by means of 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 of their life, are still unaware of tonal values.

Here are a few examples; judge for yourself: do these statements sound meaningful to you? Or do they sound like nonsense? Analytic mind of a non-artist will probably not see them as “profound”:

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.

Do the above statements make sense? To artists, they do.

One of the cardinal differences between a Great Master and a mediocre artist is the tonal awareness. For a professional artist, it is easy to identify, by looking at an artwork, if the painter was aware of tonal values. Understanding of the tonal values is important even for a sculptor. Sculpting, too, requires learning to see. In order to learn to see, one must learn how to gaze. In art, “looking” requires the 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. Solution? To enroll in an art class where they teach tonal awareness – and you will not only transform your understanding of how art is made; by changing your way of seeing you will discover your own artistic potential. No lectures or reading will replace that.

I will be posting detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to stage at home a special exercise, that will help you better understand what artists do.

Special Exercise

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 (match boxes, for example), and have a desk lamp to illuminate them from above.

When I started writing this blog, I saw Einstein’s statement relevance to teaching about tone. As teacher one has to understand the concept of tonal values to be able to explain it to anyone with no art background. But it also can be applied to art-making. As artist, your seeing the tone allows you to effortlessly “describe” your subject.

Tonal values is the “tool”, or the “trick”, of the artist for 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 painting and drawing to create an illusion of volume, shape, distance, rhythm and balance.

Now I understand why. By substituting the human form with the boxes, I replaced the rounded volumes of the real body with the geometric forms, – I created a “minimalist” version of the body with the “facets” of the head, the shoulders, the torso, the hips, the legs.

This exercise helps the understanding of tonal values by making it easy to see the facets through the use of the cubist shapes, thereby simplifying the expression of form to a manageable number of tonal values. I made the complex concept simple. I simplified the concept of expressing the volume.

Curvaceous forms of a female body (live model posing for an art class), has a limitless number of “facets” (i.e. “surfaces”), whereas a box has only three surfaces that can be seen 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 in this exercise was to simplify the form, to help my students, interested in mastering painting the human body, grasp the concept of how to produce the illusion of live form as if it was “sculpted” on canvas! This exercise helped everyone, from 8-year-old Masha from St. Petersburg, who could barely speak English, to the more experienced students, who painted in access of 20 years – come up with deeper appreciation of tonal values. They called it “interesting, challenging and enlightening”.

This is the technique, used by the 15th-century Masters to train their apprentices.
The objective was to use cubist 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 cubist-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 in our view, 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 point I made by replacing a live model with boxes will be especially appreciated by the students in the next project, following this exercise where the body was made out of boxes illuminated from above. Students will be drawing a model who will be reclining on black velvet in that same pose,  illuminated by a spot-light. Students will begin to see how the surfaces of the model’s body appear darker or lighter, depending on their orientation towards the light source.

Having connected in their mind, how the slant of a facet, angled to the light, acquires a particular tonality, the students will gain the most important skill – 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 (details and texture, that can distract the artist from seeing the most important – the structure. Preoccupied with expressing the real body, with all its softness and rounded forms, the artist often misses that concept of the structure. That’s what the Great-Masters cubist renderings of the figure can teach us, – not to replace the tonal expression of volume with “blending” and “rounding”. [These “wordy” explanations of “tonality”, can be explained in 5 minutes in a real art class!]

“Artistic seeing” implies a different way of looking at our subject. As artists we need to start with the structure, whereas as casual observers, we look at the eyes, see their color, texture of the skin, facial expression, etc. When we are starting a drawing or a painting, we need to consciously ignore these “details” (temporarily) and bring our attention to the basic geometry of the form. First – composition, then – structure, then – details. We temporarily put aside seeing the fine details in order to construct the composition, “map” it out of blurry, more-or-less generalized shapes, silhouettes and negative shapes. In these initial phases of the artwork, the contrast provided by the light and dark shapes (i.e. the lit and the shaded areas), can help us visualize our future painting. So, the process of how professional artists make art is probably different from how you may have envisioned it!

If you are curious to try the above exercise on your own – get boxes of various shapes, one large for the bottom, one medium for the torso, 8 elongated ones for the legs and arms, small box for the head. Then set the light to shine at the construction from above, and practice drawing in the Old-Masters’s approach or in the Cubist’s style.

Please feel free to post comments or ask questions.