Monday, 5 December 2011


"I am inclined to think that no artist can be called an accomplished craftsman until all matters of technique are so well learnt that they are part of his subconscious equipment". - Robert Beverley Hale

Possibly tutors today would consider this an old-fashioned approach.  I remember well, at art school in the 70's, being told by one "modern" tutor, when the college decided to withdraw all life drawing classes,  that "life is on the dont need to use a model to practice traditional life drawing, just go out on the streets and draw people".    As I was a "mature student" and he was probably 10 years younger than me, I did a certain amount of eyebrow waggling at him, but sadly, his "progressive" ideas were adopted, the life class disappeared, and I had to go elsewhere to learn what I felt I needed to learn.

The moral of the story is that everyone has to take responsibility for their own progress.  I thought it might help some of you to know that even tho I went to art school, I felt that the teaching was, for me, incomplete. I had to go elsewhere for the information and practice I craved.

So - back to the learning of technique!

One of the areas of problem that I often came across with my students, was their inability to see and recognise TONES accurately. There was often a strange reluctance to recognise that something was as dark, or light, as it really was.  A white wall, in shadow, for example, is NOT white...yet sometimes it was like pulling teeth to get the student to admit that OK, perhaps it was not as white as the bit in the sun...

Subtleties were even worse.   I would come along, point at the scene and say..."ok, what's darker...that fence, or the grass?"  The student would ponder fence and grass for a while, and eventually reach a decision.  Then they would look at my face...and then down at their image, where lo and behold, they had REVERSED the tones.

for example....what's darker, the orange shape behind the market seller, or the dark wall above it?


So little tip for today.  When you are studying a scene,  and trying to render it reasonably accurately for its tone values, don't just look at an object in isolation, draw it or paint it completely, and then move on to whatever is beside it.  When working in pencil or charcoal to create a monochrome image,  my suggestion would be to work lightly across the entire rectangle, leaving the white of the paper for your lightest areas, and working in a mid-tone for the rest.  Then, gradually build up the intermediate tones, working up to your darkest tones.


As you work, repeat these words to yourself ALL THE TIME.   "Is this area darker than that area?  How much darker?"     "Is this shape lighter than that shape over there?  How much lighter?"    Squint when you make your decisions, it helps to reduce the impact of the colour.

This simple method of checking the relative lightness and darkness of areas - particularly those which are not always side-by-side-  will help you to refine your ability to recognise the tone values before you.

Now this doesn't sound too difficult does it?  Many of you think you know how to identify tones quite well.  After all, if I asked you to pick up a graphite pencil and make a drawing of a bowl of fruit, you probably would not hesitate at would feel fairly confident of getting the tones right, even though the fruits might be all different colours.

But good are you?  How deeply embedded in your subconscious mind is this business of recognising the actual lightness and darkness of objects?  Can you really properly identify whether a red fruit is lighter or darker than a green one?

So here is a simple, fun test to help you find out how good you are!

1.  Tear a long strip from a magazine, about an inch wide, with plenty of different shapes and colours in it.
2.  Copy the strip, using a soft pencil (4B or softer), aiming for accurate reproduction of the lightness or darkness of each shape.
3.  Photocopy both strips in black and white.   Or scan them into your computer, and look at the results in greyscale.  THEN you will see how well you did!

Here's my attempt:

now scanned in greyscale:

Hmm.    "This student could do better".

If you get to the point where you can recognise the tones of colours automatically, subconsciously, you will know that this is an element of technique well under your belt.  You are on the way to becoming the accomplished artist you would like to be.


  1. Fantastic Jackie. I will be sharing this post on my Facebook page. Hope to get some students thinking! Thank you for the mini-lesson.

  2. One simple answer to that instructor's change of plans. "But none of them are holding still with their clothes off, Professor."

    Clothes are easy to draw but mastering anatomy takes drawing people who haven't got any on. I couldn't just go to a strip joint because the girls wouldn't hold still either, aside from which the lighting wouldn't necessarily let me see my sketch pad. Entertaining but definitely too fast even to get in a short gesture sketch.

  3. another excellent post! I'm going to change from advisable to compulsory for my students to read your blog!

    I agree with every word - and it annoys me when art is taught in a formulaic way, rather than an intensely observational and thoughtful way like this. :>)

  4. Vivien told me to visit your blog for the basics and she was right. Keep up your your terrific posts. They are perfect reminders of what we all are dealing with every time we create art.


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