Studying tonal composition is one of the ways I work on my painting when I’m not at an easel. The practice of observing and recording the world as dark and light shapes trains my eye to not only compose pictures but to simplify the world. This ability to simplify helps me to communicate visually. Even though these studies are done in pen, and marker, the practice of seeing in dark and light abstract shapes improves my ability to paint in any medium.
One of the most important concepts to know and understand as a visual artist is that pictures, scenes and still images are arrangements of value; light, dark and gray shapes. It’s these light, dark and gray shapes that the human mind assembles as a cohesive picture.
Being able to see the world as shapes of value, especially colored shapes and objects, is a master skill to cultivate as a visual artist. It’s important to the artist because in order to compose and arrange shapes in our pictures, we must first see and understand their inherent grayscale value.
The most basic and abstract pattern of dark and light shapes (A) is the first ‘read’ the mind makes. This happens on a visceral, almost subconscious level. As more information is processed, like details and color, the mind can then assemble a more refined and sophisticated image (D).
How do we train our eyes to see the world in value? There are some very simple strategies we can use when we observe the world around us. The first step is to learn how to deal with color information.
To see these strategies in action, watch the video below or continue reading for the in-depth breakdown.
A few years ago, I asked several Artists and teachers about an effective way to self-study. They all suggested doing tonal composition studies from old masters. Tonal Composition study is basically an exercise that develops observation skills. It teaches you how to observe, simplify and distil a complex image into big, simple shapes and 2-3 values.
Simplify, group and then simplfy some more is the lesson here. Below is an example of tonal composition studies I did from November 2011 to January 2012. These were drawn in my toned paper sketchbook, about 1-2 inches in size. See image below for complete materials list.
My daily tonal composition studies from November 2011 to January 2012.
My sketchbook and materials I typically sketch with. These are perfect for doing tonal studies and quick tonal renderings.