Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Dark on Dark, Light on Light

Part of what gives a painting impact is a simple tonal design. You can create the design with a simple light shape and a simple dark shape, almost like a yin-yang symbol. 

Fingal's Cave by J.M.W Turner

The boundaries of the shapes don't have to match up with the boundaries of the forms. So, for example, in this painting, Turner doesn't put his strongest contrasts on the top edge of the cliff. He makes it light against a light sky and loses it in mist. The ship is a dark shape embedded in a dark background. 

As Howard Pyle put it: "Put your white against white, middle tones against grays, black against black, then black and white where you want your center of interest." In the case of the Turner, he doesn't really spotlight any center of interest: it's all veiled and hidden.

Bob Ross was only half right when he said: "Put light against light - you have nothing. Put dark against dark - you have nothing. It's the contrast of light and dark that each give the other one meaning." 

He's right that tonal contrasts can give meaning and draw attention, but at the same time I believe you need to think just as hard about downplaying areas, putting dark things in shadow, grouping light areas together.

Otherwise, if you put strong contrasts all through the picture, there's a risk you'll get a chaotic, non-cohesive result. 

So I would suggest to go ahead and dramatize or spotlight a key focal area, but look for other places where you can downplay or obscure an edge.


Previous posts: 

The Windmill Principle



Drake Gomez said...

Nice post, James, and the Turner painting is a fine example of a near split-screen of a composition. I’m confused by your inclusion of the Thomas Hart Benton painting, though. Do you mean it to illustrate the idea of grouping like-values together, or as an example of a chaotic painting due to too much contrast? I don’t see it as a chaotic composition at all, though some of the scenes certainly depict moments of chaos.

Pat said...

Interesting post. Turner's painting feels like we are straining our eyes to make out the edge of the cliff in the light and the steam ship in the dark while looking at the painting just as we would if we were viewing the scene in real life. I disagree about Bob Ross; I don't think he even got that or anything else partly right.

Pat said...
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