Sunday, 20 May 2012

The use of Greyscale

I have been watching the progress of a particular piece of work – the person painting the piece has been struggling with the tones .

This seems to me to be one of the most fundamental difficulties facing the majority of would-be painters.

I believe it really is important to train yourself in accurate observation of tonal variations in your subject by doing as many monochrome images as you can find the time and patience to tackle;  this will undoubtedly prove to be excellent preparation for seeing and understanding gradual changes of colour in your subject.  Some of the finest colourists have begun by painting “tonally” – low key images, almost monochromatic – Van Gogh was one, Manet another. 

"Sarah, Harmony in White" 1992. 48x40"
A contemporary painter who was trained firmly in this way is Professor Ken Howard, a Royal Academician.  Do look at the vast range of subtle greys he has used in this beautiful piece - he spent 5 or 6 years exploring the harmonies of greys to be found in a "white on white" theme.   

In fact, many of his early works at art school were painted “contra jour” (against the light) which required very skilful management of close tones in the dark shapes of the trains and railway buildings he painted, silhouetted by light.Today his palette has widened and colour plays a much stronger part.  Nevertheless, his “tonal background” is always still in evidence – he rarely puts a foot wrong tonally. He is continuously fascinated by the variations in the quality of light on his subjects, and we are conscious of the truth of the atmosphere and light in every image.  He says:  "At art school we were taught to observe the relative warmth and coolness of colours in nature, and to recognise their tonal sequence, and these are probably the most helpful characteristics to look for...Velasquez was a wonderful colourist, yet his palette was relatively neutral;  silver grey, earthy, but full of tonal contrast, very rich, very beautiful - never very bright.  I am therefore happy to be regarded as a painter of greys.  It is a tradition that I am proud to be associated with."  And he said " it is one thing to understand tone in terms of black, white and grey, but when it comes to distinguishing the tone of a colour - its lightness or darkness - we can be confused by its hue...many painters have difficulties with their greens in landscape painting because they paint features such as trees in the middle distance the colour they know them to be in high summer, rather than relating the value or tone of their colour to the greens in the foreground.  Getting the tone right requires careful observation."

Here is another, more colourful image. This is a good lesson to show the power of vertical/horizontal divisions of the rectangle but the tones are masterful too. He warns us to avoid the pitfall of exaggerating the lights and darks at the expense of the half-tones - he says we must include the half-tones to pull the composition together.  This image is one of a "kimono" series:

"Blue and gold Kimono  40x48"
I thoroughly recommend the book KEN HOWARD, a personal view:  Inspired by Light, published by David & Charles. Those of you in the USA may not be very familiar with this highly acclaimed artist, but do take a look at the reviews of the book. 

 In an earlier post ( I offered an exercise for practicing the art of discerning the tones of colours.

Today I thought I would remind you that one of the useful tools we modern-day artists have at our disposal is the computer, and the ability to reproduce an image in “greyscale”.    So often, when I point out to someone on the forum I visit, that they should put their painting into greyscale to check it against their subject, or just to check the range of tones they have in the image, the reply is “oh, yes, I had forgotten I could do that” or “oh yes, I meant to do that”.  

This shows how handy it can be:
NINFA GARDENS - for a sun-filled scene, I feel this lacks sufficient contrast:

to prove the point, here it is in greyscale:  tonally, the range is narrow and a bit "same-y" - not at all what I had experienced at the time, the place was alive with colour and strong tonal contrasts

now I beefed up the contrasts:

and the end result is:

If I want my image to have a wide range of tones, I need to make sure that the colours reflect that tonal range.  

If you are someone who enjoys working from photo reference, you will find this tool really useful too, because you can scan your colour photo, and make it greyscale;  then photograph your painting, make it greyscale, and check the two images, for tone values,  side by side.
Checking the greyscale of your images can be so very helpful in your quest to improve tone values in your paintings.


  1. Very interesting post! I own one of Ken's books and the work is wonderful. I love the painting in white. Your painting is lovely too. I think it's possible to keep the colors soft yet also hit your range of values too.

  2. Interesting. There really was a lot of difference in your last pictures in the post. I had heard to scan in and make a gray scale photo but not to scan in the painting and compare the two. It makes sense though.

  3. I am enjoying your posts on elements of design. I quilted for several years and learned (the hard way) that value can often be more important than the actual colors, adding a strong dark can be so critical to the success of a painting or drawing.

  4. Really enjoyed reading this - very helpful. Thanks for your generosity in sharing this.


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