Sunday, June 21, 2009

Too-Smooth Tones

When he translated his reference photo into a painting, Andrew Loomis softened the edges and subordinated the unimportant small forms. For example, he simplified the details under the model’s left hand, and eliminated the delicate tracery in the lower half of the dress.

To idealize the figure, he made the head of the model slightly smaller in the painting than it appeared in the reference.

He was also conscious of breaking up the flat tones of the photo.

“One of the main things that identify a photo as a photo,” he wrote in his classic book Creative Illustration, “is the ultra-smoothness of the tones.”

Where the photo presented monotonous values, such as in the pillows behind the model’s shoulders, he activated the surface with painterly variations.

“Note the accents placed here and here of dark against light, to add punch,” Loomis says. “The lights have been forced somewhat to obtain extra brilliancy. The background has been lightened in spots to avoid the monotony of tone in the photo.”
From Creative Illustration (1947)


Erik Bongers said...

You could call this photoshopping-avant-la-lettre.
And than his 'good advice' suddenly sounds like cheating.

Alternately, about those too smooth tones, you could go the exact opposite direction. You could even smooth out the background further to create a more graphic or abstract effect.
And you could 'enhance' the models features to bring out her character rather than to 'average' her out into a barbie.

In the end, it's not so much about how much you deviate from your source but more about in what direction you decide to deviate.

jeff jordan said...

I love to do my own versions of b&w photos, and I like to hint that it's a photo. "Too-smooth tones" can be a real challenge to duplicate.
I think he lost contrast in the couch and pillows and all the tones are a little too close to each other as a result. Great figure, tho, and I like how he made the head smaller.
Jim. do you know the media that was used?

James Gurney said...

Jeff, I believe he was using oil. And Erik, good points.

We should probably qualify Loomis's advice to say that sometimes flat or evenly gradated tones are desirable: posters, for instance, or the simulated photo look that Jeff is talking about.

Breaking up every tone in a painterly way can become a gimmick. It's a good to be conscious of this variable so that you can get the effect you want.

jeff said...

Oil paint.
I have this book, it's great I got it on EBay for a song with his Drawing For What it's Worth book.

I think he does a great job of creating a a space that pulls into the woman's face. Also it's a standard practice to use progressions to help the composition.

Leaving it like the photo would have been caused the painting to die a death so to speak.

Oscar Baechler said...

I love Loomis sooo much...And good news! Although his books are out of print, their copyrights have expired and you can grab 'em all online for free!

IMHO, these are probably the best free art resource floating around today. Other than, obviously, esteemed and august living masters such as our treasured Mr. Gurney!

Michael Dooney said...

No matter how often I pour over the Loomis books, there is always new insights to get depending on what you are working on at the time.
As for breaking up the tones, he kind of did the same thing with line by advising artist to see "How straight you can draw the curve!" It's amazing how much more convincing even round forms are when you introduce some angularity to them.

James Gurney said...

Oscar, that's very nice of you, thank you. When I can't think of a post, I can just open Loomis to any page and find a gold nugget!

Michael--good point about breaking up the curved line into straight segments. Harold Speed and Charles Bargue talk about that too.

Unknown said...

This is helpful for those of us today whose lives are so busy and hectic, we just have to use photos as reference. Although, I do agree with those who already said, why not sometimes exaggerate that this is a drawing of a photo instead of a person (as Chuck Close does).

Michael said...

Speaking of "...averag[ing] her out like a Barbie" Loomis' women were always beautiful and elegant. His version is a significant improvement of the model. He has eliminated all of the awkwardness of the pose. She appears lighter in weight and graceful as she rests on more of a pillowy cloud than a sandbag couch of the day. He was a classicist contributing to, if not originating, the golden era of illustration's ideal. This post reminded me of a contemporary master who manages to make every object in his paintings elegant, Richard Schmid.

Victor said...

What about artists like Ingres who were known for their ultra-smooth modeling?

James Gurney said...

Victor, yes, or the Victorian masters Leighton and Godward. My personal feeling is that a technique that is all smooth or all chunky is not the answer, but rather a judicious combination, for the sake of spice and variety. It all depends on what feeling the painting is trying to express; the technique should serve that goal.

Smurfswacker said...

Fred Fixler suggested making two prints (in those pre-digital days) when working from photo reference. One was contrasty, massing large shadow areas though losing detail in the lights. The other was a mid-range exposure like Loomis' photo, so you could see changes in value on the light side. The contrasty photo was to remind you not to lose the subject's underlying structure while you diddle with halftones.

Patrick Dizon said...

This is an excellent example of using reference.

Thanks for this!

James Gurney said...

Smurfswacker, Thanks for that. You were lucky to get Fixler's teaching. He knew his stuff.

The classic analog-photo-manipulation trick that Rockwell used was to do a light print and a dark print of a given piece of reference. While it's nice to see the information in the highlights and deep shadows, the practice can tend to push an artist into the murky middle tones. I like Fixler's idea of the contrasty print to keep the big structure on track. It would be easy enough to do that now with digital tools, or even with a photocopier.

Daniel.Z said...

Hi James

Would you know where a higher res version of that comparison picture could be found?
I would love to examine it in detail.


James Gurney said...

Hi, Daniel, Sorry this file isn't very big. You might try the link to the online version of the books that Oscar gave: Otherwise I guess you'd have to find a copy of the book itself.