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50 Shades of Grey

Updated: May 12, 2023

That got your attention didn't it? But no, I'm not going to be talking about the book or the movies of the same name (Actually, I have to confess that I haven't read the book or seen the movie/s). Neither am I going to talking about SM or safe words. I am going to be talking about literal shades of grey.

Did you know that only 7% of what we verbally communicate is the actual words we use? The rest of what we communicate is by means of our tone of voice, our body language and the like. It is how we say things that gets across more than what we actually say.

That's why people say things like: "Don't use that tone with me!" or "I don't like your tone!" Tone of voice in communication is key to the message we are giving or receiving.

"The Sleeper" by Georges Seurat. Note that the tone is what tells the story in this image. There are few lines, no colour, but the contrasting tones create the shape of the body as well as mood.

Tone is also crucial in visual art. I would even go out on a limb and say it is so important that our art work lives and dies on the basis of our successful use of tone. Also known as value, tone, in the case of visual art refers to lights and darks, and the variation of those lights and darks in our images or art works. It is particularly crucial in the case of two-dimensional art. In all art we are attempting to suspend disbelief, and that is easier to do in visual art when you vary tones. The successful use of tone in art is important for several reasons:

  1. Tone is what will give the impression of three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. Shading, or the addition of lights and darks makes an object or scene that we are drawing or painting appear as though it exists in space, that it has volume, as if you could actually put your hands around it.

  2. Tone adds interest. Getting a good variation of lights and darks in a composition, even if it is abstract, makes it pleasing and interesting to the eye. There is a kind of "push and pull" created by varying tones as if the work physically goes back in space. If there is not a good variation of tone, the composition will appear flat and less interesting.

Often we are more concerned with getting colour right, or making sure our line work is accurate. In an effort not to be too extreme, sometimes we try to keep our "shades of grey" from becoming too dark or light, so we err on the side of caution and end up with fairly similar tones across our composition. This rarely works - our image appears flat and often muddy as a result.

I usually refer to "hills and valleys" when I am teaching about tone. If we think of an image as a topographical map, the tops of the "hills" will generally be the lightest in tone, whereas the bottoms of the "valleys" will be the darkest. On a face, for example, the "hills" will be areas like the tip of the nose, whereas the "valleys" will be areas like between the eye and the ridge of the nose.

Whenever we are depicting an object that is resting on a surface, such as a vase on a table, our depiction must include two things in order to "suspend disbelief". The first is a very dark line of shadow where the vase and the table meet. This gives the vase an implied weight and we are visually connecting it to the table it is sitting on. The second thing the vase will need is some kind of shadow. The shadow may be very distinct if the lighting is highly directional or less distinct if the lighting is more ambient. In this case, there might also be more than one shadow.

If the vase is made of glass (transparent) it will not be casting a shadow of consistent tone. Look carefully to see the lights and darks of the shadow. However the shadow will go right up to the dark line I mentioned previously. There should be no space between the bottom of the object and its shadow. If there is, the object will appear to be levitating above the surface. Consequently, if you want an object to look like it is airborne, like a bouncing ball, the shadow should be separate from the object.

Don't forget, also, that shadow can be coloured, even when the object that is casting it is opaque. Adding colour to shadows will make the whole picture much more interesting than when they are a dead grey. Realising that shadow can be coloured will make your paintings sing.

It is also important to remember that colour has tone. The best way to see this in practice is to take a black and white photocopy of a coloured image. Colours like yellow and pale blue will generally show up as lighter tones whereas red appears quite dark. Ensure that even in an abstract work, there is a variation in tone to create greater depth.

For example, if you were painting the night sky, your image will be far more successful if you use a variation of tones, rather than just black. On its own and without relief, black can appear very dense and impenetrable. Varying the tones by using purples and blues in the colouring will give a more accurate impression of the depth of distance in outer space.

Varying tone is also how we represent texture in our art work. If an object is matt (i.e. not shiny or glossy) our use of gradually varying tones will depict that. If the object we are depicting is glossy, however, such as the surface of an eye or a glass object, there will be areas of distinct white or near white highlights. Note, for instance, the variation of tone in the above still life. The yellow flower, which has a matt surface has gradual changes of tone from light to dark, whereas the bottle or apple has areas of bright white highlights. So too do the eyes on the dog below, and to a lesser extent, the nose, the only "shiny" parts of the dog's face.

A good way to ensure your work has sufficient variation in tone is to do a quick greyscale on a scrap piece of paper and then ensure that you have the range of tone that is evident in your greyscale. You can also buy a grey scale and value finder from an art supply store, but you can easily make your own. Try holding your greyscale up to any object you are drawing to see which value it matches most closely. If you can get 50 shades of grey into your work, it will be much better for it!

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