Monday, October 20, 2008

Enveloping Tone

Here's a pencil portrait of the Irish fiddler Larry Reynolds, drawn while he was performing with Seamus Connelly in 2003.

What I was trying to accomplish was a principle that I call "enveloping tone." It's related to the concept of "sfumato," the smoky atmospherics made famous by Da Vinci in works like the Mona Lisa.

Whatever you call it, the idea is to make the a strong tonal contrast between the illuminated area and the shadowy areas. At the same time, the transition from light into shadow should be fairly gradual.

The most important thing to keep in mind is to try to keep the light areas unified, without being interrupted by too many dark accents. And the dark regions should be mysterious, like an ink cloud from an octopus, swallowing up light accents into its enveloping shadow.

The early Daguerrotype photographs had this quality of enveloping tone. They're like a bathtub into which someone has poured condensed milk in one area and India ink in another, with the two principalities blending and merging into each other.


Unknown said...

creating this effect of light and dark is exactly the purpose of the underpainting, which can be done in black or brown while mixed with opaque white in the light areas.

afterwords, when this has dried, colours can be glazed and scumbled and great care must be taken to respect the tone values of the big light and dark areas. otherwise, there will be loss of unity in the final painting. so don't "overwork" the painting, and step back regularly!

well, that's how i see it and do it. in the end, all theories on drawing and painting come together and it's all so simple and comples at the same time. but you've hit the nail right on the head with this post!

Jonathan Woodward said...

Hi James,

Long time follower, first time commenter and a big fan.

'They're like a bathtub into which someone has poured condensed milk in one area and India ink in another, with the two principalities blending and merging into each other.'

I love this explanation of enveloping tone!

As it's my first time commenting - I also want to say a huge thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge on your blog - you are so generous with your time and expertise and it is much appreciated.


James Gurney said...

William, I appreciate the way you connected painting procedure with this tonal idea.

And Jonathan, thanks for adding a comment. I'm really honored that you visit the blog and get something out of it. If you try the experiment with the milk and ink in the bathtub, let me know how it works out.

K-Tron said...

Are you one of those types that refers to Leonardo as 'Da Vinci'? You're free to do whatever obv., but I've always been bugged by the slow re-christening of Leonardo by our culture at large, that has recently been exacerbated by the absurd Mr. Dan Brown.
Leonardo is his name, that is what he called himself, that is what he was referred to by his peers and his earliest biographers, and that is what the serious art historians refer(ed) to him as (e.g. Martin Clayton, Martin Kemp, Kenneth Clark, Carlo Pedretti) etc...

off my soapbox now.
that is all.

James Gurney said...

K-tron, I'm not a serious type of art historian. Or even a half-serious one. But I'll be willing to shave off half of Leonardo's name. I'll even call him Leo if it pleases you or Marty, Ken, or Carl.

Erik Bongers said...

Yes, I'm sure he'd prefer "Leo".

About the sfumato. I like to put it as 'hightlights bleeding all over the place and shadows bleeding all over the place'.

In photography you can make the highlights bleed by putting a fog filter on your camera.
Similar, in the darkroom you can make the shadows bleed with the same fog filter on your enlarger. (remeber, in the negative, the shadows are the highlights). In the final print, the shadows will show blur and bleed.

Especially the latter darkroom trick gives a very sfumato-like effect.

So, if you 'blur and bleed' your shadows, that's a good rule-of-thumb for a first attempt at sfumato, I think