This topic gives rise to frequent heated arguments on line regarding which approach is "correct" or best for representational painting. I replied to a question on Wetcanvas (www.wetcanvas.com) this morning regarding how both approaches differ. Which also got me thinking again about which approach is best.
This is how I explained my understanding of both painting approaches:-
What do I mean by tonal?
Well, it comes down to the fact that one of the things we can't capture in paint is relative luminosity, or the relative amount of light reflected from different objects, in nature. Consider as an example, that you're painting the ocean looking into a late afternoon sun. The area of the water reflecting the direct sunlight is blindingly bright (high luminosity), but still has some degree of perceived warmth in it, perhaps a vaguely yellow cast, while the surrounding water is much less luminous and perhaps looks a dull (grey) blue-purple.
It is impossible to accurately represent such a scene with paint, because the artist has no control over the relatively luminosity of different parts of his/her painting. So some compromises have to be made. At an extreme level a tonalist would make the water pure white and the rest of the ocean black so as to get the maximum value contrast possible with paint (much as a camera would do). An extreme colourist will maximise the complimentary hue contrast between the reflected sunlight and the rest of the ocean by painting both areas with maximum chroma, perhaps painting the reflected sunlight with a mix of pure cad yellow pale and cad yellow and the rest of the ocean with a mixture of French Ultramarine Blue and Winsor Violet (plus white). The reason for adding white to the latter mix is that most cool colours need some white added to bring out their maximum chroma/intensity.
The net result in the above example is that the tonalist has maximised value contrast at the expense of colour/hue contrast, while the colourist has maximised colour/hue contrast at the expense of value contrast (he/she has lightened the darks by adding white and chosen a high chroma warm colour mix without any added white which has darkened the lights somewhat).
In reality, of course, this is a continuum and nearly all painters are somewhere between these two extremes. It is a matter of ongoing argument which approach is "correct". But, of course, neither are "correct", because there is no "correct", some things just can't be painted. It is largely a matter of personal preferece which direction one leans towards. I tend to favour work which leans more towards colourism and my own style is somewhere on the colourist half of the continuum, even if closer these days to the centre than it was a few years back.
Perhaps, different lighting conditions demand different approaches? In early morning or late evening scenes, it is entirely possible to have shadow areas which are very dark and almost devoid of any colour. I haven't done many of these because I can't paint qucikly enough to do keep up with the rapidly changing light at either end of the day. But in the few I've attempted, I've certainly been a bit more tonal in my approach than usual.
I'd love to hear other thoughts on this topic.
Thanks for replying, Tony. There is no doubt that colour and it's constituent parts can be used to express emotion and generate a similar response in the viewer. But that it is a different subject really. What I'm trying to describe and discuss is a much simpler technical issue which arises in "representational" painting.
Perhaps, just to spell it out a bit more, the most "controversial" point, I made in my post is the addition of a fourth aspect of colour, i.e. relative luminosity. All you ever see written about is hue/chroma/value ( to confuse matters further, "intensity" or "saturation " are also used to describe chroma, and "tone" is used frequently instead of "value").
I have often seen it argued that the eye sees a much broader range of values or just "more values" in nature than the camera does. I think that statement is factually incorrect and potentially misleading for painters. Failure to understand what he/she is really seeing can lead the artist to make the wrong painting decisions (been there/done that frequently!).
Consider a white sunlit wall, with an upwardly opened window which is reflecting the direct sunlight. The wall may exhibit a slight yellow cast but to all intents and purposes is white, i.e. the lightest value colour on the palette. How then does the artist paint the directly reflected sunlight in the window? It will probably have a distinct yellow colour but is infinitely brighter or more luminous than the sunlit wall.
In my experience, there are three choices in this situation. Firstly, the artist may simply choose to omit the reflected sunlight on the window - after all a slight change in the angle of the open window and it would disappear. Secondly, using a tonal approach, he/she may use white, the lightest value, for the direct reflected sunlight and then a slightly darker value (a light neutral grey) for the wall. Beyond that the choices get a bit more complex, because colourists know that the eye can be fooled into believing that high chroma/intensity, especially if combined with complimentary colour, is the same as high luminosity. But there is a very fine line between getting this to work and finishing up with something that looks overly garish or simply just doesn't read right.
For anyone, who paints water a lot, this is not just a hypothetical situation, it actually occurs very frequently. I've experimented a lot with "colourist" strategies in these situations and I've proven to myself that, when it works, it is usually much more striking than a more traditional tonal approach. But it is very difficult to do right with any degree of consistency.
I was really hoping that others would share their thoughts on handling such situations, so that we might all learn from each other. But then again, perhaps, others are too busy painting while I sit here thinking!
Thanks for getting me thinking on a wet Sunday afternoon...
In your last paragraph :"different lighting conditions demand different approaches". I agree that we probably "teater" between the two, partly because of where we are in the world. If we lived in a warmer climate like California for example, pursuing a purely" colourist" approach would be easier, as I always felt that in warmer climates, we can see a larger spectrum of colour.
Why would that be so? My initial thoughts were that humidity must play a part. Then I came accross this site, which explained the effect in much more detail :
It explains how the colours of light , are distinguished by their different wavelengths. The colour we see for example in the sky, doesn't depend on the amount of moisture or dust particles in the sky, but on the molecules of oxygen and nitrogen in the air. "The electromagnetic field of the light waves induces electric dipole moments in the molecules".
It's an interesting article, which goes on to explain also why distant mountains sometimes appear blue:
"Some mountainous regions are famous for their blue haze. Aerosols of terpenes from the vegetation react with ozone in the atmosphere to form small particles about 200 nm across, and these particles scatter the blue light."
Overall, tonal v's colorism really depends on what your trying to achieve. If catching light and the effects of light on it's surrounds, colour plays a fundamental part in distinguishing not only the place, but the time of year, time of day, and also the emotions you might feel.
Thinking "Tonalism" I usually think of form, representation and mood.
In your example of painting the ocean in late afternoon sun, you write of trying to capture exactly what you see , and how to accurately achieve this.This strikes me as being a representational quandary.
However if how you felt while looking at the scene, also comes into the equation, it might sway the approach you take.
I've just seen the reply you made to the last comment:
Mainstream Cameras don't see the same range of colour (chroma) as the human eye.(there is a specialized camera which can) ....But I'm guessing what you mean is how we interpret the colour that we see.
Value (lightness / colour), and how we read it individually, relates a little to what I wrote previously. If we really want to understand the colour that we see, we also need to understand how we see, and the factors that might influence our conclusions.
The example of the "Sunlit wall", and the three choices you outline, centers around the artists' intent
1. If omitting the reflected sunlight - the artist believes that it is not integral to their composition or concept.
2. A tonal approach would represent the reflected light and help in the development of form and mood of the painting.
3. Using Chroma / Intensitity - I believe gives the artist an added tool to develop the reflected light as a center of interest, and add to the mood and atmosphere,and emotional content of the piece.
Overall for me, it really depends on the Artists' Intent. The concept behind a work, may demand a purely representational viewpoint. The subject may benefit from more or less emotional content , or a more tonal approach.
You have a particular question, relating to how you work, and the issues you've encountered.
What I guess I'm trying to say, that it's only resolvable by you the artist, and how you want the message of your painting to be translated by the viewer...
Yeah, definitely a day for thinking, Karen! I think you may have misunderstood what I was trying to get at. I have a problem with the concept of "representational art", because, based on the fact that we see things in 3D and with the "fourth dimension" of variance in luminosity, it is quite clearly impossible to accurately paint or "represent" what we see in the real world on a 2D surface. I think once an artist comes to realise and understand that, he/she embarks on a much more interesting and rewarding journey (it forces you to think a lot more about what really attracts you to a particular scene. and then make appropriate choices to emphasize that). Thanks for resurrecting this - hopefully a few more will chip in.
I also think art requires a mix of left and right brain input. My discourse in this thread only relates to the logical left brain element. All the other stuff is of equal if not more importance, because it can lift something form the ordinary to the extraordinary. But it's probably best dealt with in another thread/discussion.
You're probably right about scaring folk, Keith, and anyway most artists discover this problem for themselves and find solutions without perhaps seeking a "scientific" explanation. I'm one of those who's not satisfied until "something works in theory, even if it works in practice"!
I did a half-day workshop at this year's AITO and, in preparing a hand-out for the participants, found myself unable to explain my painting approach without addressing this issue. This time I avoided the term "luminosity" and used "brightness" instead (I know it's often used interchangeably with chroma, but I had already defined the three components of colour as hue, value and chroma in the introductory section of the hand-out). So here's the relevant extract, which hopefully explains what I was getting at a little more clearly:-
You can only control the colour of what you paint, you cannot control the relative brightness (the amount of light) coming from each part of your painting. For example the chemical composition of viridian green means that it will always reflect the same amount of light, no matter what you use it to depict, whereas, in nature, many things are more or less the same colour, but give off different levels of reflected light.
For me anyway, once I came to understand this, I found it very liberating. Why? Because, once you realise that you can't paint what you see in nature, it follows that what's behind your eyes is perhaps more important than what's in front of them, i.e. the intuitive painting decisions the artist makes are what really lead to the creation of art. Painting decisions regarding colourism v tonalism are of course part of this and I think it's largely a personal choice with neither being better than the other, regardless of the light conditions. Then again, I suppose if you want to sell a book in Spain, it might be better to write it in Spanish rather than English! So you may be correct in varying the approach, depending on the subject matter.
Thanks for resurrecting this. Hopefully, we get further discussion.
Keith William Thompson said:
I have only just discovered your interesting article. I think the term, relative luminosity, must have scared most artists off from replying. I think you summarised it well yourself with 'Different lighting conditions demand different approaches'.
Take a foggy day; as we find most of our colour in the shadows, it would obviously favour a tonal approach, as tones all blend into large shapes. A mid summer Mediterranean scene would favour the colourist.
I paint in both oils & watercolour. Most of what I have learnt about achieving luminosity in watercolour comes from the artist Jim Kosvanec who also invented the easel I paint with.
Luminosity in watercolour is affected by:-
A/. The choice of paper and how it is sized; paint sinking into the paper doesn't help matters. Think here of a stained glass window and how it needs to allow light through. Watercolour paper needs to rebound the light back through the pigment,and thus, needs the pigment to remain on the paper surface.
B/.To assist in this regard, only transparent watercolours should be mainly used.
C/. Most important though is using the right water to paint ratio. Try this experiment:- Form a small droplet of water. This will have a dome shape caused by the water's surface tension. Drop into this droplet some pigment mixture. When the dome collapses the water-to-paint ratio is unsuitable. Any wash made with this mixture will be flat and opaque.
There are times though when the use of an opaque mixture can be used alongside a transparent one to make it appear even more luminous. I must admit though, I seem to have concentrated lately more on shapes, colour and tone and put the unfortunate little ole luminosity on the back burner!
Interesting article, Michael. Thanks.
It's a scientific fact, Keith, which gives rise to the painting issues - you're advancing painting solutions above, and there are many, but none of them will ever capture exactly what the eye sees. Probably needs a discussion over a pint or two at some stage to explain this, but take an extreme example, a golden sunset. Like every other object in nature the setting sun has a colour (hue, chroma, value), but it also has intense brightness or luminosity, as has any other reflective or semi-reflective object under direct sunlight. As painters, we know that the setting sun usually has an orange-red hue which is also intense in chroma, but if you paint it that way, the value will be way too dark, so you have to make a painting decision. The two extremes are to go almost black and white (thus maximising the tonal value range between a white sun and surrounding sky), or to keep some of the warm hue in the sun and getting some complementary colours going in the sky (thus comprimising some on the available value range), and of course any number of compromises between both extremes. All I'm saying is that none of these are inherently right wrong or better than the next solution, but purely a personal choice based on artistic preferences. But for me anyway, it's worth knowing the limitiations of paint and the reasons for making certain painting decisions. BTW, these issues only arise in direct sunlight. In overcast conditions, it's much easier to paint what you see, unless you're painting neon signs!
BTW, if you want to get behind the sky-hole or "bird-hole" thing, get yourself a copy of "Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting". It's a difficult, but rewarding read, especially in his explanation of how the human eye observes light as it passes through narrow openings and the reverse situation where a narrow dark object such as church steeple or telephone pole sits in front of a back-lit sky.
Isn't it an ideal day for an intellectual discussion!
It did come out here for about 2 hours this afternoon, Keith, but the hurricane soon returned! Yes, Carlson's book is easily put to one side, because it lacks pictorial content, but I still regard it as a real find.
I have Alla Prima and love it, Keith, and I''ll certainly try to seek out a copy of Veal's book. Regarding "Luminosity" by a little known Irish artist, that may well materialise but "soon" may be in ten years time, by which stage, I may really know what I'm talking about!