A lot of books teach painting by emphasizing awareness of tone in pictures.  When we look out upon the world, we see colors and yet color can be either dark or light.  What tonality is to color can be partly discovered in drawing: which is to say that when you draw with pencil or pen, obviously you are eliminating color as a factor; and having eliminated it, you have to discover something else to organize the image — line, texture, masses of light and dark.  In painting, though, the dark/light element is still there — only it is hidden “under” or inside the color. 

 To discover how much your perception of tonality makes itself felt through color, artists can photograph their paintings in black and white.  If the image is still strongly organized and legible, then you used tone in your colors.  If the painting is hard to understand in black and white, then it probably relies very strongly upon color effects alone.  A great work of art might go either way of course.  Many impressionist painters, for instance, were little concerned with tone.

So, having strong tonal elements is not a necessity in making a wonderful painting, but it’s good to know how to see tone and to be able to decide whether to be painting tonally or not.  And I always forget how easy it is to take black and white photos with digital cameras.  I almost never use the black and white feature so I tend to forget that it’s there.  But it’s a good tool for testing your pictures to see how strong the tonality element works in particular images.

One setting of my camera defaulted to black and white today when I started my photo session, and I was astonished seeing the picture I was photographing transformed into monochrome.  Here’s the picture below as I photographed it previously for this blog.

Seeing it in black and white at the top of this post, I find that it’s more dimensional than I realized, and some of the dimension was captured by patterns of light and dark.  Don’t forget that you can use your camera not only to document your work but to explore it as well.

I went wild with this feature today.  Here’s the other comparisons I made:

Naturally for studying the effects of black and white in my pictures, I wanted to compare apples and oranges.

2 thoughts on “Seeing in black and white

  1. Very informative – I to forget about that it is so easy to convert colour to Black and White with digital images (and reverse if necessary). Do you have a technique for photographing your illustrations? so they look the same as the real thing (if that makes sense)?

  2. The main technique is to keep the camera lens parallel to the picture plane. If the color I see in the camera looks accurate, I’m happy. Sometimes I have to reshoot several times to get good color, contrast, and a “straight” shot. I usually take at least three shots of everything for good measure. Usually tinker with it a little on the computer too before posting to make sure the image is as close to the real artwork as I can make it.

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