Tone your canvas, trick your eyes

There’s science—okay, at least pop science—behind the idea that a bright white canvas will distort your painting.

One example of the Delboeuf Illusion, courtesy Wikipedia.

Why tone my canvases?” is perhaps the most common question oil-painting students ask me. It’s all about optical illusion. The size, shape and color of the objects we paint are influenced by their background.

The Delboeuf illusion is a distortion of relative size. In the illustration above, the two black disks are the same size, but one is surrounded by a tight ring; the other by open white space. The human eye sees the surrounded disk as larger than its non-surrounded twin.

The Delboeuf Illusion is in pop-science news these days because psychologists have found that people who eat meals served on smaller plates have a tendency to feel fuller faster. Oddly, animals also display food preferences based on plate size, but they don’t always correlate to our reactions. Dogs, for example, go for bigger plates. Dogs are such unwilling dieters.

One example of the Ebbinghaus Illusion, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Closely related is the Ebbinghaus Illusion, in which perception is influenced by the presence of nearby shapes. In the example above, the circle surrounded by a ring of large shapes appears smaller; that surrounded by a tighter ring of smaller shapes appears larger.

In both examples, if the shapes were all on a neutral-value ground, the contrast would disappear and the illusion would be broken.

Susceptibility to the Ebbinghaus Illusion is strongest in those with highly-developed visual cortexes (such as artists). It’s context dependent, so little children fall for it less often than adults. That would indicate that these visual cues are part of how we learn to navigate our environment. Relative size is a big clue to how far away an object is.

Sarcone’s Cross Illusion, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sarcone’s Cross is an illusion that works in the opposite way. The cross dwarfed by large black squares appears larger, not smaller. The takeaway lesson for artists is that there isn’t an easy way to predict how the color and value of neighboring objects will influence what we next put down on paper or canvas. However, we can be sure that they will. This is why value studies are such an important part of painting design.

All of these optical illusions are explored in color in Josef Albers’ classic textbook, Interaction of Color. It may not be that much help on a practical level, but it’s great fun to think about.

One of Josef Albers’ experience on space illusions, from Interaction of Color, courtesy Yale University Press.

So, what does this have to do with toning? Toning is invaluable in the initial stages of a work because it changes how you perceive masses placed on the canvas. A toned canvas helps the painter establish a pleasing value structure.

There are many fine painters who don’t need a toned ground to produce a fine painting. If our reactions to these optical illusions are learned, then it’s possible to unlearn them (or at least learn to compensate for them). But why work that hard when a simple sweep of color on your canvas will save you a lot of work?

None of this pertains to watercolorists, of course. The white of their paper is part of the design, and that makes the illusions part of their magic.

The road home

How much of what we know is truth and how much is the convention of our times?

After the final cutting, Carol L. Douglas

In the 21st century, we are being driven inexorably toward higher and higher chroma (color intensity). This isn’t just happening in painting, but also in photography, home furnishings, and hair coloring. Occasionally an artist will take refuge in monochrome, but the delicately modeled colors of our predecessors are out of vogue. We live and die at 1280 x 720 pixels, and delicacy just doesn’t cut it on a computer monitor.
Yesterday, David Dewey spent a few hours with Clif Travers and me, going through a wealth of Joseph Fiore paintings. These are in storage and represent his entire career, from his studies at Black Mountain College until shortly before his death. Unlike most painters, Fiore didn’t run through clearly defined stylistic periods. He operated on parallel tracks of abstraction and realism, each informing the other.
Guardian of the Falls, 1983, Joseph Fiore, oil on canvas, 52 x 44, courtesy of the Falcon Foundation.
His folios are full of small studies in watercolor, oil, and pastel, now chemically stabilized. The majority are formal color exercises, many based on a mathematical grid of his own devising. David identified these as Bauhaus in character, which in turn takes us back to Paul Klee, Josef Albersand Wassily Kandinsky.
Klee closely connected color and music, making the connection between harmony and complementary colors, and dissidence and clashing colors (whatever they may be). Albers was a hands-on scientific colorist who taught at Black Mountain College when Fiore was there.
Field sketch forGuardian of the Falls (above), courtesy of the Falcon Foundation. It’s watercolor and about 12×16.
Fiore’s color studies are a balm to the eye starved for subtlety. There are grids of closely analogous greens and browns; grids punctuated with black. In addition to being beautiful, they fly in the face of our current color model. 
That just shows how much of what we think we know is the convention of our time, not eternal truths of painting. Take, for example, all of Kandinsky’s twaddle in Concerning the Spiritual in Art.  For much of the twentieth century, people took that seriously.
The artist’s job is to get through all that to the nut of the matter. The only way I know to do that is to paint—a lot.
David mentioned that he uses Arches 500 in his studio work, but mixes it up in the field. The accidents that ensue help him avoid staleness. This is exactly my goal in alternating between watercolor and oil in this residency, and in painting so big and fast. I am trying to shake up my oil painting.
I was able to maintain the truth of the landscape in my sketch.
Nature has a certain awkwardness. We landscape painters are taught to edit that away into a ‘better’ composition. After examining so many paintings, I wondered how much of that is also a fashion issue. I resolved to not do it in my afternoon painting, but to be completely faithful to what God and man had laid down in that field. I don’t think I succeeded. The personal impulse is just too strong to ignore.
But when I started painting, I succumbed to the urge to prettify.
With all that fizzing in our heads, Clif and I went back to the farm and returned to work. The lake was still unsettled from this week’s storm, so I painted the small private cemetery and its lane. The lake beyond made this very much a painting of the intersection between land, water and man.
Having spent the morning in study, I didn’t finish the painting to any high surface. It’s slightly easier to do that with watercolor, since it goes faster. But in either case, the pace is starting to tell on me. I’m getting tired.

Monday Morning Art School: an art education at your fingertips

Art school averages $42,000 a year. In comparison, these books are a steal.

The most important book I recommend to my students is Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. This slim volume (I’ve always wanted to say that) lays out the fundamental rule of artmaking: if you want to be an artist, you have to make art, lots of it, over and over again.
Drawing is a skill, not a talent. Not being able to do it holds you back as a painter. Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square, by Richard Scott, is a series of exercises that will take you from simple measurement to complex architecture.
If you’re looking for similar exercises in figure drawing, I recommend Drawing the Human Form, by William A. Berry. It’s based on anatomy, not style.
Every art studio should have one anatomy textbook. I use Atlas of Human Anatomy, by Frank H. Netter. Netter was both a doctor and an artist, and he did his own beautiful illustrations. There are other, art-targeted, anatomy books, but this provides all the information I need.
Landscape Painting Inside and Out, by Kevin Macpherson, is a clear, concise guide to getting paint from the tube to the canvas.
I have a shelf full of watercolor books, but my primary pigment reference is a website, Handprint, by Bruce MacEvoy. This has replaced the classic Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, by David Wilcox. There are many different ways to get watercolor on paper. If you want to buy only one book on the subject, try The Complete Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook, by Gordon MacKenzie.
There are two color books I love. The first is Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, which is filled with exercises to understand how color works. It’s fifty years old. The writing is dense to our modern sensibilities, but stick with it.
Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, by Philip Ball, is a brilliant, readable treatise on how chemistry and technology have combined to influence art. (It’s far better than Victoria Finlay’s Color, which is merely a travelogue.) When you’re done reading it, you should have a firm handle on the differences between earth, organic and twentieth-century pigments.
I have shelves full of catalogues raisonné, museum guides, and other illustrated histories of art, but three books compel me over and over. The first is Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces. It is a simple compendium of things she likes. Fortunately, she has great taste. The internet wasn’t a big deal when she wrote this, but use it as a starting point for your own online research on artists.
The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, by David Silcox, deals with the painters who’ve most influenced me. Growing up in the shadow of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, I had no concept of twentieth-century realism, but there it was, being made right across border from me.
John Constable: The Making of a Master, by Mark Evans, illustrates a simple truth of landscape painting: it all starts outdoors.
Have a recommendation? Add it as a comment on this blog, rather than on Facebook, where it will get lost.

Monday Morning Art School: all color is relative

“Color is the most relative medium in art.” (Josef Albers)

Breakfast of the Birds, 1934, Gabriele Münter 

Periodically, we’re going to dip into color theory as taught by Josef Albers. Today’s lesson is from Chapter 4 of his Interaction of Color. If you don’t own this book and are serious about painting, I suggest you buy it.

Each November, we Northerners go outside in our down jackets on the first 40°F day and we’re shivering with cold. Come spring, the mercury rises to 40°F again and we’re scampering around in shorts. This is an example of a tactile illusioncalled a contingent aftereffect.
There are visual equivalents, most notably the McCullough effect. These cause us to perceive colors differently depending on what surrounds them. Why this happens is still not completely understood, but they have something to do with edge-sensors in the brain.
Josef Albers understood how important these edge relationships are in painting. He devised an exercise to explore them. It was meant to be done with Color-Aid, which is a delicious but very expensive system of colored papers. You can just as easily go to the paint store and get similar paint chips for free. Or you can draw the design, mix paint, and apply it with a brush.
The important thing is that you must not have raised edges. If you do this with paint chips or Color-Aid, use a sharp blade to cut out the shapes and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Plate IV-1 from Interaction of Color by Josef Albers. Your assignment is to replicate this in different color schemes, with the two squares always the same color. (Courtesy Yale University Press)
In plate IV-1, the two small squares are the same color. This is the influenced color. The horizontal teal, dark blue, yellow and orange stripes are the influencing colors. In this example, it’s almost unbelievable that the influenced color is the same in both squares.
Your assignment is to repeat Plate IV-1 with other color combinations. You’ll find that some combinations are more pleasing than others. Some color combinations have more influence on the influenced color. Some colors are more easily influenced than others. The more you experiment, the more you’ll learn, and the more you share your homework with others on our Facebook homework site, the more others will learn.
Plate IV-2 from Interaction of Color by Josef Albers. Why do we perceive these grids so differently when they are exactly the same size? (Courtesy Yale University Press)
Plate IV-2 shows a grid of a secondary color on two different backgrounds made of its constituent primary colors. Our perception of the grid is very different when it’s set on cool blue or warm yellow. What is happening in our brains to create that difference?
Plate IV-4 from Interaction of Color by Josef Albers again shows the relationship between influenced color and influencing color. (Courtesy Yale University Press)
In plate IV-4, the two interior violet shapes are the same color, but we see the top violet insert as the same as the bottom violet surround. The bottom surround is a tint (the color mixed with white) of the violet.
Albers designed these exercises to be completely abstract, so that your perception is not altered by symbolic or verbal thinking. Now, let’s toss in some meaning.
Gabriele Münter’s Breakfast of the Birds with the drapery color changed.
At the very top of this post is Gabriele Münter’s Breakfast of the Birds, 1934. Münter had a difficult life, and this painting is thought to be autobiographical. The draperies have been described alternatively as cozy or claustrophobic, the model as reflective or isolated.

Immediately above, I have recolored the draperies to a cool blue. How does that change our perception of the other colors in the piece? How does it change the mood of the piece?

Color deceives

Next time you look at that ‘great deal’ of a shirt, realize that while it may look fashionably blue, it might run red.
Plate from Interaction of Color by Josef Albers (Yale University Press)

 In order to use color effectively, it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. (Josef Albers)

Josef Alberswas a ground-breaking art educator, and he meant this in its most literal sense. He returned to the idea over and over, saying things like, “The concern of the artist is with the discrepancy between physical fact and psychological effect,” or “Every perception of colour is an illusion.”
Albers’ exercises from Interaction of Color still have much to offer. For its 50th anniversary, Yale University Press offered an app of the exercises from the book. Buy the book and use paint chips instead. Our retinal sensitivity runs into millions of different colors. Monitors aren’t nearly as sensitive, and they work on a different principle of color than printing or paints (additive rather than subtractive).
Plate from Interaction of Color by Josef Albers (Yale University Press)
Albers’ quote can be applied almost anywhere. Consider applying it to race relations. I’m not ‘white,’ any more than my friend Helen is ‘black.’ But we live in a world where color names are shorthand for our social stations, often wrong.
I found myself thinking about Alber’s dictum after reading excerptsfrom the Anti-Fashion Manifesto of trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort.
“How can a product that needs to be sown, grown, harvested, combed, spun, knitted, cut and stitched, finished, printed, labelled, packaged and transported cost a couple of Euros? On the hunt for cheaper deals, volume companies, but also some luxury brands, have trusted the making of their wages to underpaid workers living in dire conditions. What’s more, these prices imply the clothes are to be thrown away, discarded like a condom before being loved and savoured, teaching young consumers that fashion has no value.”
Plate from Interaction of Color by Josef Albers (Yale University Press)
We keep slaves like our 19th century ancestors did. We’ve just moved them to the other side of the world. Ironically and sadly, many of those slaves still work in the cotton fields.
“Children, especially girls, are employed by farmers in order to cut costs, as they are paid well below the minimum wage and the wages paid to adult workers,” reported the International Labor Rights Forum of India.
“The child workers are often in a state of debt bondage since their employers pay an advance to the children’s parents and then they must work to meet the amount paid. The children generally work at least nine hours a day, but during the winter, they often work up to 12 hours a day.”
Homage to the Square, 1965, Josef Albers
According to the Australian Walk Free Foundation, in 2016 there were 46 million people enslaved worldwide. Two-thirds are in Southeast Asia, which is where much of our cheap clothing is made.
The garment industry has a history of labor abuses, going back to the Napoleonic Wars. That doesn’t excuse our involvement.
We can’t avoid foreign-made goods. It’s difficult to determine what’s made by slave labor, since it infiltrates the high-end market as well as discount stores. Why not “buy a few remarkable things and wear the heck out of them,” as designer Jane Bartlettsuggested?
Next time you look at that ‘great deal’ of a shirt, realize that while it may look fashionably blue, it might run blood-red. As Josef Albers told us half a century ago, color deceives.