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Tonality: the secret to mastery.

Olya Losina
February 21, 2019

At first glance, the concept of tonal value may seem “vague and insignificant”; but it is one of the most important concepts in art. It seems easy, but it is difficult in practice. Why? Because “tonality” is an optical phenomenon; and, as any optical illusion, is perceived as “not real”. Our brain does not acknowledge it. For the human beings, color is important (we choose clothes by color; we judge fruit by how ripe it is, etc.), but noticing the tone often seems useless and unnecessary. We assign significance to distinguishing the green traffic light from the red, but we don’t care which  is darker or lighter. It does not even occur to us to compare.

The concept of “color” seems easy. Identifying a color requires no effort at all - we can determine the color of an apple at a glance. On the other hand, distinguishing the tonal value of the pear (how dark or how light it is) requires a certain effort. We need to compare it to something else, seeing it in relationship to other colors. We can only notice object’s tonality through intentional looking and only by holding it in the same gaze with something else. (All artists learn to see the tone, but do you know that even very experienced artists need to be reminded to look at the tonal value of color? Tonal value is the brain’s “blind spot”).

In order for an artist to remember to gaze in this “comparing way”, we must learn to become aware of tonality’s existence, because otherwise, tonal value is naturally, instantly, without our awareness, “dismissed” by our brain. Our brain, early on in our life, learns to ignore tone because it is not “valuable” information that matters for our safety or survival. In early childhood, we un-learn to see; seeing gets replaced with “knowing”.  So, the artist has to re-learn to see.

Tonal awareness almost never comes to an art student intuitively; a teacher has to introduce it. Tone is what you don’t know you don’t know. This is the case of when “what you don’t know” becomes the chasm between your vision and your ability to effectively communicate that vision to your viewer.

What is “tone” (or “tonality”, or “tonal value”)?

It is very simple: tone is how dark or how light the object is – there seems to be no complexity here. But in reality, tone is too ephemeral and often is not so obvious at all. Seeing tonal value requires a conscious effort, based on the awareness of the tone’s existence. Why is such a simple concept as tone so hard to hold in our attention? Because tonality actually interferes with the “knowing”: a white object may look black – but we know it is white, not black, therefore it is white to us, no matter how dark it appears to be. Unless you are an artist, you don’t need to worry about that illusion.

Tonal property of color is often different, or even opposite to what we expect it to be, know it to be, or assume it to be. 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 stated without looking, it is only true in this moment. For instance, a lemon is perceived as yellow even if it may look white under the bright light, or may appear black against the light.

During studio training, artists begin to understand that “optical illusions” are the true impression on the retina. This is what “learning to see like an artist” means.

Here is an example that demonstrates this difficulty with perception: when we look at an object, its color – that we think we can so effortlessly name – is nothing more than our “knowledge” of it, not what we actually see. We say that the apple is red, even when it looks violet at twilight. So, we actually see the violet apple, but we know it is red. Our brain effortlessly subtracts the blueish veil from the red apple and “restores” the “true color”. So, we see what we think we see, not what we actually see. The irony is that to us, tone does not seem real, even though it is how we see; but the color seems real, even though it is not what we see with our retina.

What is color?

What helps to understand “tone” and “color” is a glimpse into what color is. To understand these two “simple issues” (tone and color), you must at first realize how complex they are. Art is similar to science; the artist must look deeper into things, to understand them, to be able then to see, in order to express their vision.

Color is an optical illusion, a sensation aroused in our brain. An impression of a certain color is created in the eye, when the light, reflected by a surface, enters our pupil as a certain frequency of the wavelength: a shorter wavelength, or a more frequent “bombardment” of the retina – and we see blue color; less frequent wavelength – and we see orange color, etc. When no light is reflected back – we see black, and when multiple wavelengths are reflected – we see a pale color or white.

Color is produced – not “revealed” – by the light reflected from a surface. Artists see the color of a red apple as a “fleeting impression” – as what it seems to be at the moment. In the morning, the apple is pinkish-red, in the daylight – bright-red, in the twilight – purple or brown, at night – black. Which is its true color? The answer is: there is no “true color” – just like there is no “true temperature” for an object - a rock is cool in the morning, hot in mid-day, cold at night. “Temperature” and “color” are of the same nature – they are energy, and both are produced by the light. In our perception, we accept the fact that temperature can change, but we perceive color as a “permanent attribute” of an object, just like its shape or texture. If you want to learn more about the nature of color, google “science of color”.

Artists treat color and tone as one complex quality that requires intentional looking.

What You May Be Thinking (If You're Not An Artist)

A person, who has never had any formal training in fine art, may be skeptical about the necessity of such formal training, or the validity of “artistic seeing”, or the complexities of the tone. There is a common opinion about artists in general: “Artists are a different breed, but they cultivate the impression of being “complex” and “mysterious”, they claim to be more “sensitive” than others. I admit, they possess talent, but why do they have to sound so vague and over-complicate simple things, like color! Color is color, there is nothing to it. I have no problem seeing that shadows are darker, I can see the difference between dark and light, I can certainly see tonality; and I am aware that colors change, depending on the light. I don’t need “formal artistic training” to teach me that."

Yes, at the first glance, it seems clear. But without the experiential encounter with tonal values – through art-making at the easel with a teacher helping you to see, – any information about “tonal values” fails to become your usable, “active vocabulary”.

Approximately here, from this point in this article, any of my further attempts to explain why the non-artist is blind to tonal values, will meet resistance from your brain. Unless you are engaged in drawing or painting, your brain will be “annoyed” with further explanations, seeing them as a slightly absurd, pretentious, ambiguous gibberish. Continue reading and see if you are able to make sense of it.

Practice Painting and Drawing To Understand Tone

To the artist, tonal values are the “crown jewel” of artistic mastery. Tonality, however, absolutely can not be taught and understood theoretically. It can only be learned only through artistic practice, accompanied by teacher’s guidance. You can only understand tone through practicing drawing and painting. It is only possible to understand when the information is relevant to you, as you are in the act of drawing or painting. Practicing painting on your own may result in tonal awareness, but not necessarily. Many self-taught artists, painting all of their life, are still unaware of tonal values.

Concepts and Quotes to Remember

Judge for yourself: do these statements sound meaningful to you? Or do they sound like nonsense? An analytic mind of a non-artist will probably not see them as “profound”.

1) “Color is nothing, tone is everything; when I run out of red, I paint it blue.” -Pablo Picasso;

2) To see the tonal value, you must turn off your brain.

3) We see not what we see, but what we think we see.

4) This white does not look white; if you make it less white, it will look more white.

5) Dark colors in the light are lighter than light colors in the shadow.

Do the above statements make sense? To artists, they do.

One of the cardinal differences between a Great Master and a mediocre artist is the tonal awareness. It's easy to identify if a painter was aware of tonal values by looking at their artwork. Understanding tonal values is important even for a sculptor. Sculpting, too, requires learning to see. In art, “looking” requires the specific technique! You can read books and articles, trying to understand tonal values and still only have a blurry idea about how artists see. Solution? Enroll in an art class where they teach tonal awareness. You will not only transform your understanding of how art is made but by changing your way of seeing, you will discover your own artistic potential. No lectures or reading will replace that.

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