Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Value Planning

An art student recently asked me the following question:
 Dear James,
Some discussions I've been involved with lately have got me thinking about the relationship between color and value. Do you approach them as two different steps of a painting? For example some people see a well worked out monochromatic grisaille painting as perhaps the most important step in a painting, with the scumbled on color as an accentuating element. On the other hand some people have a more Alla Prima approach where they jump right into color, and create the illusion of "turning" surfaces and value directly through color mixing. How long do you spend on the monochromatic stage of a painting?
                    ---Pro Cedure.
Dear Pro Cedure,

You ask a very great question color and value. Yes, I do think about the value structure as a separate step in developing a studio composition. I tend to do that thinking as a preliminary step in the charcoal or pencil stage. As I'm sure you know, Norman Rockwell was the king of planning the value design first in charcoal before jumping into oil (above: "The Ferry Story" courtesy of Heritage auctions).

Whether you plan the tonal structure as a separate study (as Rockwell, Cornwell, Lovell and many academics did) or whether you establish it on the final canvas as a preliminary stage of painting, either way it really is the foundation of a good picture. Color adds a lot, but it can’t save a bad value design.

And even with a thorough planning, you can still turn forms with color temperature as you suggested in your question. Rockwell is a good artist to study for that, and I believe many of his instincts for impressionistic color effects came from his study with Charles Hawthorne.

In my case with a fantasy or historical painting, once I have figured out the tonal design in two or three values as a separate step, I begin the layin or block-in. I don’t use a monochromatic grisaille but rather a limited palette of color, such as yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue. The whole step should only take an hour or two.

My goal in the preliminary block-in is to establish not only the tonal statement, but also the big warm and cool relationships and the overall color mood at the very outset of the painting process. I stay well short of darkest darks, saving those for the finishing steps of the painting.

When working on location, or when painting the figure in under two hours, I am under shorter time requirements. So I often dive right in with color, but sometimes I do a quick pencil thumbnail sketch to plan the value design.

All the best, JG
Related post on GJ: The "two-streams" hypothesis of visual perception
Recommended books: "Hawthorne on Painting"
"Rockwell on Rockwell"
I also cover this material in "Imaginative Realism"


Andrew said...

Regarding turning forms with color temperatures, this was something that I've been trying to dissect lately with my own work. Are changing color temperatures used as a way to cause minor value shifts in a piece?

N.C. Wyeth's work always brings this up in my mind. To me, at least, I can see a few clear cut values in his work, and it looks like he helped push those values by really working with contrasting cool and warm colors. It seems to me that the goal was to keep the simple value plan he set out with, while keeping it from appearing flat.

So the way I look at it is that I can use color to add subtle modeling in areas where trying to distinguish it with values would possibly muddy it up or be too indistinct to have the desired effect.

I know far more knowledgable people frequent this blog, so if anyone can chime in on this I'd be really grateful.

Eldar Minibaev said...

It's a very interesting question! I was wondering if the perception of the value might be confused by the color, is it possible?

Unknown said...

Perhaps, for further education, you could show us an example of particularly "bad values"...

Alonso said...

Dice Tsutsumi has a great little walk thru of holding onto a strong value composition through all the stages of a painting.

Greg Kapka talks a little about chasing Sargent in figuring out how to use color to turn form instead of value. Couldn't track down which post just now though.

(maybe it's in the Sargent Notes that Craig Mullins keeps )

Speaking of color; I've read through my copy of Color and Light a few times (thanks for such a great book) But something I'm not clear on is how do you choose a color scheme to use? It makes sense choosing a cool scheme for a night scene or a warm scene for a scene lit by fire, but in scenes that aren't so dominated by colored light how do you choose? Like the triadic color example in the book, why did you choose that shape triangle, positioned there? Or Richard Robinson's gamut mask tool, you can make any shape mask you want, so how do you know what you want? Am I overanalyzing, is the point just to set some limits and go by feeling? Thanks

Tom Hart said...

True confession: I'm no spring chicken (in many ways), but I must admit that I'm surprised not to recognize the phrase to "turn a form". Is that the same thing as modeling a form? (i.e. conveying the illusion of depth/roundness?)
Or is there some disctinction between those meanings?


Mary Bullock said...

Question -
If one were to have an original Hawthorne - and one were interested in selling it - where would be the best place to sell it - with an art dealer, with an auction house or through a private sale?

James Gurney said...

Drew and Tom, what I meant by "turning a form" was showing a plane change, such as from the front of the face to the cheek. Depending on the light source, that could be done with a value change. You can also turn the form by using a bluer hue at the same value. It's a bit of a painter's trick, but forms in the real world often get a bluish color from sky reflectivity.

Eldar, yes, our perception of relative value can be confused by color, especially if the chroma is very different. For example, it's hard to judge the value of an intense orange next to a very dull blue-gray. It's fun to play with the desaturation tool in Photoshop to see what happens.

Richard, will do, but I have to use long-dead artists or my own as examples of bad practice.

Alonso, Good question, and it can be answered many ways. Sometimes I get ideas for color schemes by just spinning the mask around on the color wheel. Other time I just want to use certain colors, and I use the system to appreciate the intermediate colors and to suggest accents. But for me the main value of the system is to become more conscious of what I'm leaving out of the scheme.

Mary, I'm no expert here, but I'd start at the top by contacting the American Painting expert at Sotheby's and offer to send them a JPEG. Hawthorne is a fairly important painter, and if it's a good painting in good condition, they may want to take it, or at least advise you of other options.