Friday, March 25, 2016

Harold Speed on Flat and Gradated Tones

Welcome to the GJ Book Club. Today we'll cover pages 187-192 of the chapter on "Tone and Colour Design," from Harold Speed's 1924 art instruction book Oil Painting Techniques and Materials.

I'll present Speed's main points in boldface type either verbatim or paraphrased, followed by my comments. If you want to add a comment, please use the numbered points to refer to the relevant section of the chapter.

1. Gradated and Flat Tones
Speed covered this topic in his book on drawing as well. He suggests planning the picture in flat tones and to "let your gradations be the result of such tones melting into each other where necessary." Form that is conceived in planar terms has more vigor, he argues, compared to smoothly curving form, which can start looking effete or feeble.

Turner - Norham Castle Sunrise
2. Lost Edges
Speed says that a good place to put gradations is in the edges between the big flat shapes. "The larger the number of these lost edges the more gracious the expression, and the larger the number of hard edges, the more forceful and less gracious the expression." As with all painterly aesthetics, an intelligent mix of both is the best bet.

3. Range of Tone
Here's another principle: "The smaller the range of tone used, the quieter and more peaceful the result." In the Turner sunrise painting, the values are kept close and the edges are kept soft, creating a gentle effect, like a shimmering tremolo on the violin. Note that he didn't use pure white for the sun, but shifted hue and chroma from a light gray sky to a high-chroma yellow sun. The piece is high in key and is saved by the solitary dark accent of the cow (or is it a horse? I can't tell).

Whether Turner pushes his effects too far in his late work is a matter of taste; I prefer his earlier work where the effects are more understated. I think Frederic Church is better at Turner than Turner is.

The reverse is also effective: a mostly dark painting with a single light accent, as with the Bierstadt nocturne below:

Bierstadt Ships at Night
Speed says: "When the full scale is used and the tones strongly contrasted you get the most dramatic effects. But when the full scale is used but the tones are not strongly contrasted but gradate quietly into the other, you get an effect that is neither dramatic nor peaceful but simply a strong normal effect."

Giorgione's Holy Family with Saints
4. Giorgione's Holy Family with Saints
Note the central position of the Madonna, but the varied handling of the flanking figures.

5. Giorgione's Fête Champêtre (Pastoral Concert)
Speed admires the wide range of tone without dramatic edge contrasts. Contrast between gentle form modeling on figures to staccato accents on the drapery.

6. Poussin's Flight into Egypt
Speed seems to greatly admire this painting. He analyzes the piece by sketching a tone plan and a diagram of line rhythms, and he breaks down the composition in tonal terms. Personally, I don't see this as being a very exemplary work. It has so many confused centers of interest and awkward, stiff passages. What is the baby Jesus most worried about: the concrete clouds, the heavy handed foreshadowing, or his distracted parents? Sorry, I've just never been a big fan of Poussin.

Next week—We'll continue with the Veronese on page 192.
In its original edition, the book is called "The Science and Practice of Oil Painting." Unfortunately it's not available in a free edition, but there's an inexpensive print edition that Dover publishes under a different title "Oil Painting Techniques and Materials (with a Sargent cover)," and there's also a Kindle edition.
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Steven Thor Johanneson said...

Poussin is an acquired taste.

Steven Thor Johanneson said...

Poussin is an acquired taste.

Jesper Friis said...

Interesting posts as always.
Dont know if you know of The Internet Archive
figured if you dont you or your readers might enjoy it,
great inspiration and research.
Took some screenshots of a "few" cool things i have found :)

Cheers and good weekend

Kurt Ankeny-Beauchamp said...

James: Here's the Wikicommons version of that Giogione painting:,_Madonna_with_the_Child,_St_Anthony_of_Padua_and_St_Roch.jpg

James Gurney said...

Kurt, thanks, I've added the Wikicommons version (without the watermark) to the post.

Jesper, that's an amazing resource. Thanks so much

Steven, I guess so. I'm always ready to be inspired. I suppose it helps to see the originals, too. There are a lot of artists that don't really translate well to computer screens.

HNK said...

Very, very sadly, The Internet Archive is blocked in our country. I am really disappointed.. But thanks for the resource, Jesper.
And I am really sorry that I cannot contribute in this wonderful book club: I, of course, cannot find this book anywhere, as you've probably guessed it. But I still enjoy it. Thank you. (off-topic, big wall-like comment again!)

Jesper Friis said...

James, Happy you could use it.

HNK, You can use a VPN site like to get around region blocks on sites, just don't use it where you need to input personal data, just to be safe.

HNK said...

I forgot this option. Thank you, Jesper. I'll try that.

Fabio Porta said...

Amazing Resource Jesper! Thanks!
As for the chapter, I agree with James on Poussin's. I am not a big fan of those thick clouds, especially, and I would rather go for "gradations only" like Turner instead of none, like Poussin

Rich said...

Well, I still am a "fan"...erhhh a somewhat (oldspeak) "admirer" of Poussin.
There's a calm strength in his compositions, a sense of overall unity. He's just "classical", IMO.

Although good old Cezanne (Poussin admirer like Delacroix and a host of others) must also have objected to those "concrete clouds":-) He is quoted to have said that

"he wished to do Poussin again after nature."

Amile Wilson said...

May be to late to comment, but the animal in the foreground is a cow. Cows have very flat backs, horses a gentle curve. Horses also have strong curving hindquarters where cows have a sharp angle. The cows shoulder is also angular and there appears to be a dewlap below the neck. Horses overall seem to be very curvy and feminine in their build whereas cows are more angular and masculine.

Not a particularly profound comment on such a lovely painting, but just an observation.

Bobby La said...

A couple of years ago, that Giorgione painting made it to Melbourne. It was one of the most beautiful works I've ever seen and I had my nose pressed into the varnish for the longest time. I felt it was unfinished or perhaps too rigorously cleaned at some point in its history. It is very thinly painted in parts with large unmodulated passages of thin flat tone. It gave the impression of a wash-in. The figure on the left is a friend of the family and doing well in unbelievable likeness!

...and James...don't go dissing the Poussin....


Steven Thor Johanneson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Thor Johanneson said...

Rich said ... There's a calm strength in his compositions, a sense of overall unity. He's just "classical"

Well said ... it took me a long time to appreciate Poussin, but once there, there's no going back ... As I said above he's an acquired taste, and well worth putting in the time to do so.