I’m continuing with my exploration of values using the Munsell colour system, and I’m finding it to be a very useful tool.
I’ve now answered one or two questions I’ve had for a while about tone, and raised many more. There have been moments over the last few days at the easel when I’ve felt that this subject – translating light into paint -is too difficult to grasp. But like Magnus Magnusson, I’ve started so I’ll finish.
The first and most important point I need to make today is that I’ve realised that I’d got my Munsell scale wrong in the last couple of posts. I thought true black was value 1 in Munsell. It isn’t, it’s 0. Ivory black oil paint, whichI thought was 1.5, is actually 0.5. Of course that throws out all the sums I’ve been doing so far to workout how to compress the tonal range but keep the ratios between the tones the same.
Here’s my Munsell neutral palette as it stands now. The Munsell scale goes from 0 (black) to 10 (white). That makes eleven values, with ten steps in between.
In paint, we can’t get black, it’s more like 0.5. We can’t get a true white either, so it’s nine-point-something. What the point-something is I’m not entirely sure. Graydon Parrish, perhaps the most notable exponent of the use of Munsell in painting, believes that titanium white can get up to a 9.75. My white tag looks lower than that, but I’m not going to disagree. He’s quite possibly spent more time with Munsell than any other living painter, has evolved an approach to colour based on it, and is a modern day Apelles as far as I’m concerned. Look him up on Google if you want to see what he can do with brushes and paint. I have Graydon to thank for starting me on these exercises.
Back to the palette, and reading from left to right on the palette above, we have 9.?, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Adding pure ivory black at the end would give me another tag at 0.5.
Now we’ve got the palette straight, lets get onto the pictures.
In the last post was a painting of three cubes, one white,one a value 5 (mid grey) and one black. The point of that exercise was to figure out how many Munsell steps I had in my subject, and then compress the ratios down to the range I have available in my paint. I could try to do that by eye, but I’m doing it mathematically in order to make sure I get it right. I should get the answers I need visually from the resulting paintings.
The first post in this series describes how I arrive at the number of Munsell steps I can see in my subject, by holding up two tags over adjacent areas of tone and counting the steps between them. Since I’d done my sums wrong in the first stab at the three cubes exercise, I thought it would be wise to do another with the numbers for the values more accurately worked out. This picture shows the first version and second, corrected version below it:
The most noticeable difference is that the cast shadows and the shadow plane of the white cube are significantly lighter in the second version.
Another change here is that I used a Munsell 9 for the light plane of the white cube, leaving myself a bit of headroom on my lights. I did this so that I could add the highlight down the top edge of the light plane of the white cube. It’s there. I can see it, so I want to paint it. The light and half tone planes of the value 5 and black cube have also got a little lighter. Which do you think is the most convincing?
The second version was done when I was still working under the misconception that black was 1.5, so, of course, I’m going to have to do this particular exercise again. However, I do think that the second version is more convincing than the first. Overall, I’d say that the light appears more diffuse, less strong than it does in the first one. But I also think that each cube works more convincingly as a part of the whole, the white cube in particular.
Perhaps I’ll get it better still whenI come to do a version in which I finally get the sums right. For this version, my Munsell tags told me that I had thirteen steps in the subject from my lightest light to my darkest dark, so I compressed each relationship by 0.76. I rounded the figures up or down for the painting though, my eye isn’t nearly sensitive enough to perceive and correctly mix a difference of a tenth of a step. The final stage of the exercise is always some adjustment by eye, so the ratios are never exact in any case.
One final point about the second version. In “Creative Illustration”, Loomis points out that in order to create a consistent feeling of light in a painting, the relationships between the tones of the light and shadow planes should be consistent across all the objects. At least, that’s the way I read it. So the difference between a light plane and a shadow plane would be, say, five steps, whether the given object was a light or a dark colour. I was careful to stick to that rule in the second version here, as far as I could. That may have helped the light to feel more consistent across the three cubes.
But now I come to one of the questions that this practice has raised. My Munsell chips tell me that the ratios of light to dark are not the same across my three cubes. I’ve checked time and again over the last few days, on my white, my value 5 and my black cube. Every time I get the same result. On the white cube, there are 7 steps between the light plane and the shadow plane. On the value 5 cube, there are 6 steps. On the black cube, there are 5.
Does this mean that we perceive more tonal contrast in lighter objects? Does it mean that Loomis is wrong? I find that hard to believe, but I must believe the evidence of my eyes. The only way for me to be sure about this is to do some exercises designed to investigate it further.
And that, I think, is the greatest benefit of this method of practice. The cubes and the Munsell tags can be used to pin these things down, to get answers to questions of tone through purely empirical means. What this really comes down to is a method that can be used to investigate how light behaves when it hits a form. Although the tags, cubes, value steps and maths may seem unduly technical to some people, what painter wouldn’t benefit from a greater understanding of light? Light is what we paint. Without it, there’s nothing to paint at all.
Back to the exercises. After the second three cubes exercise came two small paintings of the white cube. You might recall me quoting Harold Speed in the last post, where he described two approaches to handling tone. In the first, you work down from the lights, matching the steps in tone as accurately as you can, until you run out of available range. The second approach is the opposite, working up from the darks, whilst keeping the steps in tone perceptually accurate. This method means running out of room at the top end of the scale. In both cases, the range is compressed at one end, the darks or the lights.
Here are the results. The first painting at the top is working down from the lights, keeping the steps in tone perceptually accurate. My Munsell tags should be letting me get these steps much more accurate than I could get them simply by looking. I’ve hit black (0.5) for my cast shadow, so it appears darker in the painting than it appeared to my eye. But the light plane of the cube fairly shines out. The effect is one of sharply focused, directional light. According to Harold, this is how Rembrandt would paint a white cube. Except perhaps that he would do a better job of it.
The second cube is painted up from the darks, so I started at a value 2 for the cast shadow. The compression is more obvious here, with the half tone and shadow planes of the cube, together with the background, coming out much lighter. Although the form seems less defined to me in this version, there appears to be a stronger overall feeling of light, as if the cube is bathed in diffused light. This is Turner’s cube, and is consistent with what Harold says about it being a way to fill the painting with light. I think he’s right.
This was a very interesting exercise, it showed me that tone relationships can be manipulated for effect. As long as the form isn’t completely lost, it’s entirely up to the painter what feeling of light he or she wants to convey, and a good command of tonal balance should mean the ability to do that as and when the painting requires it. I plan to get myself down to the National Gallery and see what I can learn there. The three cubes exercise will also be done again, using these two approaches. That will make the compression of the two ends of the scale much more obvious and the effect that much more dramatic.
The next stage was to introduce a sphere. To be quite honest, I was getting a bit tired of painting cubes. Another aspect of this practice is to learn how to model form more convincingly. Cubes are easy. Spheres are hard.
It was during the planning of this painting that I first noticed the wider range of tones on the white cube. At one point, I measured it and got eight steps, so the process is far from infallible in my hands. But thereafter I consistently got 7 steps. 6 steps for the grey cube, 5 for the black one.
The values for this painting were worked out more carefully again, and I think are getting closer to an accurate, even compression. The amusing thing about this sketch is that it took me over six hours to plan out the values of the tones and about an hour to paint it.
Another question was raised that day when the sun came out a few times, shining directly into the window. From reading Loomis, I have the impression that tonal contrast is stronger in direct sunlight than it is in diffuse, overcast light. Again, my cubes and my Munsell tags disagreed. I’ll have to test this a lot more too, particularly since my eyes tell me that Loomis is right. But my eyes have told me plenty of things that my tags have disproved, I know now how easily my eyes can be fooled when it comes to judging tonal relationships.
After all that working out of tones, I felt the need to just paint something. With my value 5 cube, I can hit all the values perfectly well, no need to compress or sacrifice anything. I can paint the tonal balance exactly as I see it. This little sketch was done with the idea that I wanted to get as close to what I saw as I could, to get some kind of visual truth.
Some time ago, Harold Speed taught me that quality of line is as important as tone in showing form. I’ve tried to work the line here, trying to be lead as much as possible by what my eyes told me. I’ve included the Munsell values on the right. Six steps between the light and the dark, no matter how many times I measured it. Six in direct sunlight, too.
Cubes are easy. Spheres are hard. But the practice with the value 5 cube helped me paint this value 5 sphere.
Rather than thinking about the surface of the sphere as a whole (and panicking) I tried to split it into the shadow, half-tone and light planes. The highlight is extra to those. Having just painted the cube, I knew exactly what values to use for the sphere, so there shouldn’t be much more to do than lay them down in the right places, then blend a little between them. The reality was a protracted period of sweating and swearing whilst I tried to get it look right.
I think the cube sketch is more effective than the sphere, so I’ll have to paint some more spheres. But tonally speaking, both paintings looked very close to what I saw. Encouraged by what I’d learned so far and by these last two sketches, I wanted to have a go at something real.
This pear fit the bill since the colour is low chroma,and the value is close to my v5 cube and sphere, maybe half a step above. So I was already in the ball park with the values and had modelled a sphere, how hard could a pear be?
Well, harder than the sphere. That’s all I’m saying.
One part of the form principle which I very much agree with is that texture applies only to areas in the light, the light plane and the half tone. Shadows are without detail. Reflected light does have an influence on the modelling of shadow planes and cast shadows though. SinceI’m working in a shadow box lined with dark grey cloth to cut out reflected light, the sphere and pear are the first time I’ve really had to deal with reflected light in these exercises. It reflects up from the v5.5 cloth onto the curved edges in shadow. One of the many epiphanies I’ve had over the last few days is that I’ve been consistently painting reflected light too light, weakening the form and the feeling of light. I think it’s about right on this pear. I would have loved to do this pear using the ‘lights down’ and ‘darks up’ approaches too, but unfortunately I ran out of daylight and had to stop.
Those sketches will have to wait for another day.
The Munsell Value Studies are posted in six parts:
Part 1: Munsell Value Studies
Part 2: Three Cubes with Munsell Values
Part 3: More Munsell Value Studies
Part 4: Real World Objects with Munsell Values
Part 5: Cubes and Spheres in Ten Munsell Local Values
Part 6: Still Life Paintings with Munsell Values
Free Value Tutorials
Subscribe: Join over 10,000 other artists and get free updates. I'll also email you THREE FREE value tutorials that will help you bring your pictures to life.