Tonal Painting

Tonal Painting

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The Black and White Pastel Deconstructed

 From beginning to end it took about two and one half hours to complete this painting.  The whole time I  viewed my subject as an abstraction of light and dark patterns.  Not once did I think of anatomy, an "eye", a "nose" or a "mouth".  I could have continued on with refinements, but I lost interest in this little plaster man.  Perhaps I should have stopped sooner.  That's the beauty of  the tonal approach.  If the dominant tones and shapes are correct early on, the painting may be stopped at any step along the way and still present a convincing image. 

 Tonally speaking, detail is nothing more than small patches  of  tone superimposed upon larger patches of tone.  If the large, dominant tonal intervals and shapes are not correct,  no amount of detail will save me.   I can hear my father's admonition;  "light reveals, while shadows conceal", and so I am careful to keep details in the lights where they belong.  The shadows must remain relatively simple or the painting will not read properly. 

 I spend most of my time adjusting intervals, pushing around shapes, and adjusting the transitions where tonal patterns meet.  These transitions are called edges, and are either hard, medium, or soft and also have a relative order that must be established.  I put in my hardest and one softest edge, with all others falling relatively in between these two extremes.  The image takes shape as my tonal patterns are pushed around like so many drifting continents.  Eventually they get pushed into the right shape and into their proper places.  I am continually adjusting tonal intervals which in many ways is  similar to adjusting a  musical chord, with each note being positioned relatively lighter or darker than the other.   Getting this "chord" structure correct is essential.   Once the big tones and shapes are set, I begin to add detail.  

 Step one takes the longest, and requires the most discipline, and isn't much fun.  But experience tells me that the success of my finish lies in the quality of my start.   Next, I block in the largest patterns of the three most dominant tones.  I anticipate the need to make many corrections so I keep it simple. Too much information early on just gets in the way. I apply pastel in flat mosaic patterns. If tones appear too broken, like confetti, they will appear both light and dark simultaneously, making it difficult to accurately judge tonal relationships.

  Before the painting begins, I use my mind's eye to pre-visualize the dominant  tonal effect, which in this case is a light surrounded by a dark. I also decide how many tones are needed to describe the subject, always favoring the least number possible.  I begin my sketch by mapping out boundaries for these major tones and their attending patterns.  It isn't really drawing in the conventional sense because the quality of line is not a consideration. This s tep takes the longest, requires the most discipline, and isn't much fun.  But experience tells me that the success of my finish lies in the quality of my start.  

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