Monday, November 19, 2012

Value Suppression/Compression

     As we all know as artist, we are always learning.  Sometimes a little tidbit and sometimes a huge Aha!  Yesterday was somewhere in between.  A few years back I came across the idea of compressing values into value groups so as to strengthen one's composition.  I remember the example given was about viewing a Sargent painting from a distance and how one could see three, no more than four value groups.  Only upon closer inspection can one see the subtle value changes within the value groups. Then this pass year at the national Oil Painters of America exhibition, Quang Ho shared his idea of the different intentions in painting with "Local Tone" being one of them.  Essentially, local tone is value compressing.  I think you get the idea.

     Having said that, I read this week on Stapleton Kearn's blog post about his students not using the full value range in their paintings.  Now I was confused.  Which was best and which of the two ways of seeing should I teach my students.  I'm attaching the original blog post first and only the first point he makes.  For the entire post check out his blog on my Blog List.  Mr. Kearns writes:

      There seem to be common problems that many students have, and recently I have been aware of how most of the students have the same things to learn. I get a broad range of students in terms of ability and experience, from beginners to semi-professional, so some of them don't have these shortcomings. Most of them do. Remember, I am not talking about you, or anyone you know, I am  talking about those "other" people who are far away. The common problems are these: (let me chamber a few bullets here)

  • Failure to express the full range of values in the scene before them. Most of the students seem to paint in a few middle tones. I always seem to be telling them, "when you look out there, you see a dark and paint it a dark value. When I look out there, I see a dark and ask myself, which dark is it? I have several to choose from." The students use a single generic dark and a single generic middle tone, etc. They command too few values to explain that at which they are looking. I have been telling them this ;:" Did you learn to read from the Dick and Jane books? " (for you younger readers, Dick and Jane were drab children who said things like "look Jane! see Spot run! Run,run run. See Dick run!!" Spot was a dog. Dick was once a common male name. Jane was a girl's name then, much  like Krystle or  Brittney might be today). he teacher went up to the blackboard and wrote a list of about ten words on the board before she even handed out the book. You had to know about ten words to read even this simple story. The authors of this sorry tome couldn't tell even its banal story without at least ten words. They couldn't write the book with only say... five words, they needed at least ten. If you imagine your value scale to be words you will need about 10 or at least six or seven anyway, to tell the story that is in front of you in the landscape. You students don't have enough words (i.e. values) to tell the story of the landscape in front of you. I suspect that the best cure for this problem would be cast drawing under the eye of a master, but that is atelier training and most people just can't leave their real life behind and do that. I am trying to come up with a systematic approach to curing this problem, I do have an idea. I will get back to you on that.
So I asked the question in the comment section and he responded yesterday and his words were very insightful.  Mr Kearns states my question and responds this way:

     A reader on the comments page recently asked me:
Please help my confusion on values. I have read and been taught to not use the full spectrum of values because it weakens the painting. Their instruction has been to narrow your values to three no more than four value groups by compressing the values together. By doing this you make a stronger pattern of shapes that holds together, especially from a distance. Please clarify. Looking forward to your response.

This is a big question and I may need more than a single post to answer it.

1)  There is the appearance of nature in light as it sits before you. I think I can readily discern and express about ten different values outside. Before the cast, as an atelier student I was taught with ten values. In practice I use maybe one or two less than that if I am trying to the the look of nature. When I teach, I generally try to point out the difference between nature and the students work. Most of the students I meet in workshops are struggling to get the image successfully and halfway accurately onto the canvas. That is the first skill that a student needs, transcription. This is not necessarily art, it is a skill and anyone can acquire it with some hard work.

Until a student has this ability it seems important to me, to help them "see" nature more clearly. I talk a lot about design, arrangement, color etc. but if I neglect to steer students closer to the look of nature I run the risk of teaching them "how I do things" rather than broader skills they can use themselves. So when I teach I would only suggest to the most advanced students that they paint their values any differently than they see them.

That artists who work in reduced numbers of values agree there are more values than they use seems clear, as they speak of compressing or limiting their values.

2) It is possible, perhaps desirable, to reduce the values in a design to get more unity of effect, a broader look and a clearer assembly of shapes. Usually the effect is one of a stronger, simpler arrangement. But, this is a lens  through which painter looks at nature, and not the appearance of nature itself. Compressing values, means to change them to something else, hopefully more desirable artistically.

This is a design method, and as such, a convention, a personal choice. That's OK, it is art after all, and the art lies in the choices we make about how  the painting will look more than in cold transcription. Below is a sphere with the parts of the light labeled on it.
The sphere above has five separate lights. A tree in light or a head or figure will generally need five separate values to explain itself. Where these five different values come from on the value scale, whatever size (but ten for the sake of this explanation) can be chosen and they could be derived from the middle of the scale or one end or even spread across its length from Stygian darkness to unalloyed white. I find it difficult to work effectively with fewer than five values. I  sometimes will design pictures using three premixed values, but when  I make that into a picture I feel the need to add a few more values here and there. Even this five value system precludes the representation of halftones. Each halftone (modeling in the lights) would add a separate value to the list. I don't present all of this to discourage the practice of suppressing or compressing values. This topic arose out of my listing problems that plague workshop students. I would suggest that the artist should first be able to render in  a full and not a truncated panoply of values before reducing their number.

4) I didn't hear the idea of compressing values until perhaps fifteen years ago, no doubt because of the enormous and beneficial influence of Richard Schmid. I learned something similar in the Gammell Studios though. It was  called the "BIG LOOK". The idea was this....Not to  cut up your big shapes with lots of varying values or details within them. One was to keep their shapes big, or uncluttered. Shapes of similar value would be  conjoined and darks or lights deliberately linked. All of these plus suppression of  detail gave a broader simpler look. Gammell often derided what he  called "looking into the shadows" that is allowing yourself  to refocus your vision  and examine separately from  the lights   the value  changes and detail within the shadows. That is the shadows  would be mistakenly painted as they appeared when examined individually and not as seen  in relationship to the entire scene including the  lights. This was seen as the enemy of the big  look.

     From the comments that followed this post, it appears that his explanation was very valuable and I hope that it will help you.  As a teacher, I have to remember not to teach what I do personally but to teach them to transcribe first in full values.  Later they can choose their own artistic interpretation.

Thanks Stapleton.  Don't forget to check out his blog.

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