Using black and white for stronger paintings

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black & white duoMaking two paintings just using black and white as a tonal painting exercise seemed a natural progression of my new contrast project, even if it is way outside my normal colour comfort zone.

What did I hope to learn?

Our eyes see high contrast shapes more swiftly so how can we use that to lead the viewer’s eye around a painting in a pleasing way, using differences? Strong tonal difference is seen first, often from across the room and getting this structure right is essential to the overall impact of a painting, but you can be more playful within areas that are closer in tonal value so that there is interest when you  notice things that aren’t so immediately obvious.

Using differences in mark making, scale and shape can also help in the ‘design’ of your painting.

Beginning and adjusting

So starting with just simple marks and then reacting each time we add more to the painting is a good way to play with what impact we can have. This seems simple, but it was hard!

I wanted to avoid all my usual forms of reference – no allusion to landscape, just using simple forms.  I was prepared with different size brushes and I started with black… It felt very harsh!

When it felt like enough I switched to the second board so it didn’t become too repetitive. The aim was to avoid using mid tone greys as these can too easily become indistinct.

I tried to take photographs throughout so I could keep a record, but inevitably there were times things moved pretty fast. I thought might be easier to show in a video:

At the end of the first session I stood back and looked what I had done: two big bully boy scribbly eggs and some awkward lines that were similar in length which just emphasized the same shape. Not a great start.

Printing out the images at 2 inches square four times on an A4 sheet meant that I could add and subtract tonal areas just using a pen and tippex. This felt slightly like ‘cheating’ as I was avoiding resolving the issues I had created by using paint. But it allowed me to explore alternatives more quickly by expanding the darker shape on one panel and by covering it over on the second.

Different painting adjustments

It feels really good to obliterate things by painting over them! This in itself is a great lesson – too often I can feel wedded to a certain area of a painting too soon and the wish to preserve it can be so strong  I want keep it – even if it’s in the wrong place and doesn’t fit the overall composition. Seeing how a painting can be improved by painting over what isn’t right felt like a revelation. The improvement is more satisfying than the loss of what has gone. And it hasn’t completely gone – there are always traces left behind that add interest and texture.

If you know my work you will recognise these are VERY different from what I usually do. I was trying to keep away from anything representational on purpose. No landscapes, no tricks of lighter tonal value receding into the distance of a landscape. I was treating the surface of the painting as a flat plane and aiming to create balance rather than any illusion of three dimensions.

Black image adjustmentFixing in Photoshop

After I had finished I took one of the panels into Photoshop and made some further adjustments:

It was a painting of two halves, which can work, often where you have a horizon of land and sky but I needed a way to make it easier for your eye to move from left to right across this painting.

By breaking up the line between black and white and adding more lighter areas to the right hand side, this gives a way for your eye to travel over more easily.

The three white areas in the top right were similar in size so I made one larger.

That small white dash in the middle of the black area? Placed rather centrally between top and bottom? I elongated that and pulled it more towards the top.

The bottom area felt quite heavy so I broke into the black space and increased the whiteness of that light patch at the bottom so it pulls your eye downwards.

All these changes could be made with paint but I think they give more variety and liveliness. You ‘move around’ within the space so you find new things to look at in all areas of the painting. There are some similar shapes (where did the boats comes from?!) which means it feels a bit cohesive.

You could also make similar changes at a smaller scale using pen and tippex as I did earlier. Or by photocopying your black and white image and then using the second copy as source material to collage over the first image to ‘try on’ different possibilities and see what makes the design feel stronger.

But I’m not painting in black and white?!

… and neither will I be usually. 🙂 In the next post I’ll show you how doing this exercise has already helped me identify elements of a painting I’m working on which could be improved if I paid more attention to the value, rather than get carried away by colour!

Is tonal value something you consciously think about in your work, or notice when you look at paintings? Let me know…

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