Tone as Form
ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528)
Old Man aged 93, 1521 (brush drawing on paper primed with color)
Note above the drawing reads 'The man was 93 years old and still healthy.'
Albrecht Dürer, the great German artist from Nuremberg, made many tonal studies of heads, hands and drapery as preparatory sketches for his paintings. While on a visit to Venice in 1505, he adopted a Renaissance drawing technique called 'chiaroscuro' (Italian for 'light-dark') which used three basic tones to create the illusion of form:
- the dark tones were created with black ink.
- the light tones were established with white gouache, an opaque form of watercolor.
- the mid-tones were provided by the color of the Venetian Blue paper that he found in Northern Italy.
Dürer's drawing of the 'Old Man aged 93' (1521) is a superbly skilled brush drawing that used the 'chiaroscuro' technique to render tone. It was done some years after his trip to Italy on paper that he primed with a grey-violet wash for the mid-tone as he no longer had access to his Italian source of Venetian Blue paper. Dürer built up his dark tones in several layers of cross-hatched brushstrokes, graduating their shades from the natural black of the ink, through three or four paler concentrations to the mid-tone of the primed background. The highlights were hatched and stippled in white to complete the wrinkled form of the old man with his luxuriant beard.
STANLEY SPENCER (1891-1959)
Self Portrait, 1914 (oil on canvas)
Stanley Spencer, the diminutive eccentric English artist, painted this 'Self Portrait' two years after he left the Slade School of Art. It displays a total mastery of the academic skills that were taught there, particularly his use of 'chiaroscuro', which by his time had come to refer to the dramatic contrast of light and dark tones in painting. The inspiration for the portrait obviously draws on Spencer's love of Renaissance painting and by association it inherits those classical qualities. However, it also has an element of Romanticism in its introspective vision. What makes this painting so appealing to modern eyes is the combination of Spencer's intensive personal scrutiny, the accuracy and expressive vitality of his brushwork in the painting of his facial musculature, and the extremes of tone which hold the form together with such dramatic tension.
GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
Seated Boy with a Straw Hat, 1883 (conté crayon on paper)
Georges Seurat, the Post Impressionist painter who invented Pointillism, also devised a drawing technique that focused exclusively on tone and its ability to render form. 'Seated Boy with a Straw Hat' is a tonal study for a figure in his first major painting, 'Bathers at Asnières'. It is done using the flat edge of conté crayons to create broad areas of tone on a heavily textured paper . (Conté crayons or sticks are made from compressed charcoal bonded with wax or clay to form a square sectioned drawing medium). When you draw in this manner, the 'tooth' of the textured paper holds the pigment while the 'valleys' remain white giving you a dark tone that is speckled with light. You can then adjust the density of the dark by building up the tone in layers.
The 'lines' in Seurat's drawings are really edges which are formed when adjacent dark and light tones meet. Seurat adjusts the tones of the figure and its background so that the outline of the image emerges from the contrast of its edges. For example, if look at the boy's hat and face: the back of his hat is formed by a contrast of dark against light, the front is formed by a contrast of light against dark, while his shaded face is formed by brightening the tone of its background. This is the ideal technique for creating preparatory studies for Pointillist paintings which rely on the tonal distribution of areas of dots and not the sharpness of lines for their definition.
HAROLD COHEN (b. 1928)
Richard V, 1967 (silkscreen on paper)
Since the 1960's, Harold Cohen has been a pioneer in the development of technology as a creative medium in art. His portrait of the pop artist, Richard Hamilton, is one of a series of ten silkscreen prints that explore the parameters of perception in relation to tone, color and form. He uses a photographic halftone grid to reduce a black and white image of Richard Hamilton to a network of dots. This also has the effect of reducing the resolution of the image to the threshold where any further reduction would make its form unrecognizable.
In each of the prints Cohen allocates three different colors which create a tonal relationship: one color is applied to the dot structure, one color to the background and one color to the drop-shadow that lifts the dots off the background. The final series of prints explores the relationships between tone and color and how they affect our perception of form.
SALVADOR DALI (1904-1989)
Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire, 1940 (oil on canvas)
Salvador Dali devised a surrealist visualization technique that he called his 'paranoic critical method'. This involved composing shapes and forms that could be perceived as alternative images balanced on the borderline between illusion and reality.
In 'Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire', Dali's wife Gala, in the guise of a slave, sits at a table and watches the transactions of this inhuman trade. As her mind wanders from the scene, the image reconfigures as a bust of Voltaire, the French philosopher who advocated the type of rationalist thinking that was detested by the Surrealists. Why then did Dali choose Voltaire if he was so despised? The answer lies in the paradox of his painting: he is using a symbol of rationality to subvert a rational interpretation of the work, thereby eclipsing rationalism with the irrationalism of Surrealism.
Dali uses the way we perceive tone to construct the form of this 'paranoic critical' image. He understands that our brain will register the tonal structure of an image before it processes its details. Consequently, he reduces the details of the clothes on the two traders to tones of black and white thus enabling them to stand out and be reinterpreted as the features of Voltaire's face: their heads become his eyeballs and sockets; their white ruffs his cheekbones and nose; their aprons his chin and shoulder; while the crumbling arch above them outlines the top of his head. The 'paranoic critical' illusion is complete as the reconfigured image floats above the broken base of a fruit dish which doubles as the pedestal for Voltaire's bust.