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See Like An Artist

Did you know that your brain processes two billion pieces of visual data per second? Did you know we only “see” about 50 bits of this information?

The human brain is designed to quickly identify and interpret everything that enters the visual sphere. When people tell me they can only draw stick figures and symbols what they mean is their brain can only label an icon for the object and is not engaged with the unique peculiarities of the object itself. Their minds do not perceive the subtle changes in the color of a lemon in a dark blue shadow or the variations in a white piece of paper half in and half out of bright morning sunlight. Their mind receives the signal for “yellow lemon” or “white paper” but strips out the detailed relationships of color, line, shadow, shape, contour, and value of the object in its environment. By doing this the brain is doing us a huge favor. If it didn’t block out most of what was happening around us, we couldn’t focus.

According to a study by University of Oslo psychology professor Stine Vogt, Ph.D. in Perception (Vol. 36, No. 1). nine psychology students and nine art students were asked to view a series of 16 pictures while a camera and computer monitored where their gazes fell. She found that artists’ eyes tended to scan the whole picture, including apparently empty expanses of ocean or sky, while the nonartists focused on objects, especially people. Non Artists spent about 40 percent of the time looking at objects, while artists focused on them 20 percent of the time.

What does the artist see that most people do not? The first thing an artist observes is light. The appearance of what we see at any given moment is totally dependent on the relationships between light, objects, and our position as viewers of the situation. Without light, we can see nothing. Too much light and we can’t determine anything. Our ability to see the world around us is dependent on the amount of, and conditions of light within the range between total darkness and total brightness.

When we are swimming in an overwhelming sea of a million colors representing hundreds of perceptibly different lightness values. color is often different, or even opposite to what we expect it to be, know it to be, or assume it to be. Strangely, the best way for me to understand the color in my photographs is to remove it altogether. That’s why I begin by breaking down my composition into simplified representations using only black and white.

The simplest way I know to truly understand the light in my picture is by creating a Notan. Notan is a Japanese word for an alternating black and white pattern.

I use Notan to separate light from shadow into a two-value abstract pattern which reveals how light falls in my artwork. The light family (white) consists of all areas that are touched directly by the light source. The shadow family (black) consists of everything that is hidden from the light source. This includes all shadows and reflected light areas. A clear separation of what is in light and what is in shadow will make everything that is not working in my image immediately apparent.

I start this process by tracing my source image over a lightbox and creating multiple photocopies of my tracing. I use Tombow double-ended markers, or a Sharpie, to separate the light from the shadow on my first photocopy. Alternatively, you can use your phone or computer to convert your source image into grayscale and then increase the contrast until you have a black and white representation of your image. If the image still reads as you want it to at this stage, then you are ready to move on to a more detailed tonal value study.

Value does not describe the price or amount paid for an artwork. Value is an art term used to measure the relative lightness or darkness of a color or color shape. Value dominates our visual experience. It is the strongest element of visual contrast and largely determines our perception of form as we explore a picture.

A value scale ranges in discrete steps called tones that start at one end and step towards the other from white to black or vice versa. I use this handy tool for matching any color to a tone on the scale. You can either buy one or make your own value scale by painting strips numbered from one to 10 or one to 100 that range from pure white to pitch black on a piece of white cardboard.

To keep my tonal value study simple I use only 4 values - white, light-mid value, dark-mid value, and black. I buy Tombow markers in three values to use on another photocopy of my tracing to ensure I stick to just these four values. The key in this step is grouping values. Squinting at your subject helps to link the values and shapes of individual objects into larger masses of connected shapes. Consider the negative space and join the values of these surrounding spaces into a single value in an interesting shape that supports and defines your object(s).

It sounds really easy, right?

The difficulty with our perception of tone is that it 100% depends on the light; when the light changes, the tone changes with it. That’s why to our brain, tonality is unreliable. Tonal value is such an impermanent property of an object, that it can not be determined without looking, it is only true at this moment. For instance, our lemon is perceived as yellow even if it may look white bathed in bright light, or may appear black against backlight. We need to compare our object to something else; see it in relation to other colors to see its tone. We can only notice our object’s tone through intentional looking and only by holding it in the same gaze with something else - like our value scale. That’s why the artists in the study above were seen to scan the whole picture and not focus on the individual objects. They were looking for tonal relationships. All artists eventually learn to perceive tonal relationships, but do you know that even very experienced artists need to be reminded to look at the tonal value of color?

Because tonality is an optical phenomenon; and, as an optical illusion, our brain does not acknowledge it, it is easier for the amateur artist to begin working from photographs. Assessing the tonal value of the different parts of an image is much clearer in a black and white version of the same photo. Doing this makes a difficult subject easier to paint.

I don't always get the tonal value correct when I work in color. Therefore, to spot the mistakes, I sometimes scan or photograph my own paintings and then convert them to black and white and view them on my computer and phone as a way to spot what is and is not working.

In general, what was white in my Notan sketch will be white and light-mid value in my tonal value sketch and what was black in the Notan will be separated into dark-mid value and black in the tonal value sketch.

The goal for my tonal value sketch is to use 4 tones to create:

  • a contrast of light and dark.

  • the illusion of form.

  • a dramatic or tranquil atmosphere.

  • a sense of depth and distance.

  • a rhythm or pattern within a composition.

I always start with my focal point. This is the first place I want the viewer's eye to land. An important rule of composition is that the eye is attracted to the greatest point of value contrast before any other contrast. The human eye is drawn to something light set against something darker or vice versa. By carefully using tone you can create, or strengthen, the focal point in your paintings.

Next, I examine my three-dimensional forms: A careful transition of light and dark tones on a subject gives the illusion of three-dimensional form. It is not the color that makes an apple look like an apple. It is the contour and the form shadow that describe its shape and texture. You could color it blue or yellow, and it will still look like an apple if the tones are right.

If you are interested in understanding more about tonal values and still only have a blurry idea about how artists see, reach out to me and let’s talk. I welcome the conversation and I am available for private classes or workshops. I hope you will use these thoughts to strengthen your perceptions and your paintings. Regardless of your art form, understanding how to play with tonal values can significantly improve your creations. With Light and Delight,


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