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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…

Anyone who says painting is easy has clearly never tried. Each mark is the result of a myriad different decisions, some are conscious and some are led by intuition. Which builds through knowledge and practice. One of the hardest things when I started painting was getting over the idea that I had to know it all to begin with. I’m a conscientious person; I like the idea that effort and organisation brings its own rewards. Maths and physics tests with well defined answers were a dream for me at school. But in art, there is no right and wrong.

…actually that’s not quite true. While we all have different visual preferences we do also have a sense when something is ‘off’. I’m sure you’ve felt it; a painting is too heavy on one side, the tonal balance isn’t correct, a certain area just jars. You may not be able to put your finger on what it is, but you know if it sits well or not.

I’ve been working on a new painting this week – it’s the largest size I’ve ever worked at and it is bringing me plenty of new challenges! I’ve had to scale up all my brushes, I’m still not mixing enough paint, I’m using acrylics and the drying time on such a large scale takes some getting used to. I posted a detail on Facebook earlier this week mentioning that feeling when you have left something and the next day you return to it with a nervousness that it is not as good as you remember… Between Day 1 and Day 2,  I  was pleasantly surprised. But yesterday I mucked it up.

I don’t know why – maybe I kept working at it when I should have taken a break, or I wasn’t clear about what I was trying to do. It doesn’t really matter. I haven’t been up to the studio today to look. Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised ( that would be nice!) but I doubt it. You know when somethings is not right. It’s working out what needs changing that is the hard bit. So it was amazing to find this quote yesterday evening:

“Art is longing. You never arrive but you keep going in the hope that you will.” Anselm Kiefer

Funnily enough, even though I knew it wasn’t going quite as planned I haven’t been frustrated. In fact the moments when it felt most wrong were the times I made most progress. When I sort of shrugged and just went for it: working fast with the colour, mixing directly on the board, making more sweeping brushstrokes. I don’t know all the answers yet, but I’m really enjoying figuring it out.

It’s as if for the first time I have allowed myself to admit that I don’t know where I’m going. Yes, there’s a longing to get it ‘right’, but I don’t have to have all the answers in this one piece. No artist ever does, so where did I get the notion that this on ehas to be my masterpiece. It is one more step and I do have faith that this painting will ‘arrive’. There will be a moment when it is, like Goldilock’s perfect bowl of porridge, “just right”. I just have to hope that I have the presence of mind to recognise it.

And then keep going on another one….

 

Art is longing_ws