Monthly Archives: October 2013

Element of Design – Tone

Tone, sometimes called “Value” refers to where any particular hue or surface falls on the white to black scale – how much light is reflected or absorbed by the surface. It has to do with light and shadow, contrast and the effects of texture.

  • A tint is a hue with white added which creates a lighter tone or higher value.
  • A shade is a hue with black added which creates a darker tone or lower value.
  • A neutral is a hue with grey added – which also have tonal values.

If you consider how any color would look if it were filmed in black and white – an effect you can easily create today thanks to photo editing software – you can get an understanding of the tonal value of the hue. In the olden days costume and set designers in the movie studios had charts that translated colors of paint and fabric into the grayscale so that the set and costume colors could be chosen accordingly – varying by which color process the studio would employ. Red often reads very dark – hence the black lipped appearance of all those wonderful classic film actresses.

Scientist and actress, Hedy Lamarr in The Conspirators (1944)

Scientist and actress, Hedy Lamarr in The Conspirators (1944)

A tonal scheme with a great deal of value difference from the darkest to the lightest (regardless of color) is called a “Major” scheme. One with little difference is called a “Minor” scheme. Where the majority of the values are light that is a “High” scheme, while where the majority of the values are dark, that is a “Low” scheme. There is also the idea of medium or middle.

A Low Minor scheme would tend to be heavy and somber. It is rare that there would not be even one lighter hue or tint to relieve it – especially in nature. Adding a light color to make it a Low Major scheme adds some energy, and can suggest formality. (Think dark business suits with a dark tie and a white shirt.) Film Noir is Low Major.

However a Medium Minor scheme could still be a riot of colors. In a minor scheme all the colors would be close to equal in value. Bright Christmas red and green is an example. However if you add white, gold or silver the scheme becomes a Medium Major scheme.

Case Study – The Wizard of Oz

Thanks to the wonderful conceit of creating both a black and white and a colorful world, the 1939 classic gives us an opportunity to see some great tonal work.

In Kansas it’s not just the absence of color that suggests Dorothy’s bland life. The tonal scheme, as she wanders around the farm exteriors is a bland high minor. It’s actually a tough sell overcoming that in a single quiet song, but luckily Judy Garland was, well Judy Garland. Reportedly the studio execs almost cut “Over the Rainbow” as a slow point!

However when the old biddy, Miss Gulch, appears she is notable for her dark dress. The visit to Professor Marvel’s travelling caravan and the following approaching storm take the whole scheme to Low Major, providing more chiaroscuro, and therefore energy.

In Oz there is that riot of color that is nonetheless a Mid Minor scheme in the background. The parts that make the tonal scheme a Major scheme, thereby adding energy and focus, are Dorothy herself in her light dress, Glinda in her pink tint gown, the Witch’s now classic striped socks, the Witch of the West’s darkness and the Yellow Brick Road in wide shots. It is the nature of yellow that it always has a high value. (Ask me about working with Yellow as a lighting designer some time!)

Munchkins compared

The Minor tonal schemes of the backgrounds are especially noticeable in black and white stills. The Emerald City (Medium Minor), the Dark Forest (Dark Minor) and the Witch’s Castle (Dark Minor) function as a background to the actors’faces and moments of action (eg flickering flames).

Contrasting Discords

This is a very useful concept. I’ve read some different definitions, but the one I learnt originally makes the most sense to me.

Saturated hues have an inherent tonal value. I already mentioned that Red is dark (Low). A discord occurs when a color (tint or shade) is combined with a tint, so that the expected values seem reversed.

It’s all about the relationships of colors to each other.

For example:

  • a very pale Pink with Pumpkin (dark orange) is a discord.
  • Lavender and Kelly Green is a discord.
  • Any time you put a pastel with a bright yellow, that’s a discord.

Tone in Writing

The word “tone” is used differently in writing than as the design principle. Here is the simplest and clearest definition of tone in writing that I have found.

However in considering the design principle of Tonal Value when crafting a story it might apply to sentence length, balance of phrases, use of short or polysyllabic words, and paragraph structure. A piece with long, flowing sentences suddenly punctuated with short exclamation might be commensurate with a Major scheme.

Tonal Value might also be reflected in writing by the use of descriptive words that refer to metaphorical light and shade.


Tonal variations can flow softly, like an ombré or gradation, or they can have sharp edges like the glare of a sunny afternoon. Hard edges can suggest energy, strength or tension and conflict. Consider a classic chessboard – there can be no greater tonal range, in perfect balance, the setting for a perfect codified conflict.

Here’s another wonderful site about color theory.

A Creative Business

Work in Progress

Should you turn your creative practice into a business?

Recently I was reading a creative business marketing blog, and the author was talking about two different styles of creative worker. The ideas are equally as relevant to any entrepreneur or business owner as they are to working artists.

The two styles were either super focused on one thing, or someone who works on multiple projects and streams.

As someone who in recent years has tended to be the second, it has been hard for me to accept the message that the most successful people from a business or professional perspective have been those who have laser like focus on one thing at a time – taking a project, or income stream, from genesis to fruition before starting on the next big idea. Yet I keep hearing it.

The first answer to the question is “only IF you are prepared to focus on your business”.

What is success?

This question has very different answers for me depending on what part of my life I am discussing.

My professional life is one of Design – using my artistic skills to solve someone else’s problem – while my personal practice is Art – stemming from my own internal desire to express creativity. I was single minded while working, but enjoyed playing around with many projects between jobs.

When I was working in theater or the film business, I had a very single minded focus on completing the job at hand. I learned early on that trying to work on too many projects concurrently meant that none received sufficient attention for excellence.

Professionally success meant excellence, kudos, and repeat business or testimonials.

In my personal creative practice success is more measured by enjoyment of the process, the journey to self-knowledge, and my gradual measurable improvement in the skills of creative expression.

The second answer is “IF you are ready to direct your creative impulses in service of your business”.

Challenges of self discipline.

 1. Maintaining Focus

One of the reasons I chose to walk away from my film career and give my full attention to my new family was my understanding of my own inability to leave work at work. I find film and theater design emotionally engrossing, and worrying, contemplating, solving problems would continue to distract my mind from things like parenting or conversations with my husband.

However, since separating from my professional life in film and theater, the personal and professional have blurred. Most of the work I do creatively is designed for public consumption and sale. Or to put it another way, I try to monetize all my endeavors – even if it is only the extent that the art becomes self supporting.

But my problem is that I have too many! Some ideas fizzled quickly – like custom scrapbooking, which was easy to let go. However the more painful choice I have made recently is to give much less attention to my art dolls. I continue to work on ongoing doll figures gently, especially commissions or gifts – more than a hobby, but less than a serious business concern. I want to share my dolls with the world so they are for sale. But the truth is that they are a luxury item. Time consuming one-of-a kind art works are rarely the primary income source for any artist – except perhaps architects! The couture is the art; the perfumes and handbags are the bread and butter.

“I love Prada. Not so much the clothes, which are for malnourished thirteen-year-olds, but I covet, with covety covetousness, the shoes and handbags. Like, I LOVE them. If I was given a choice between world peace and a Prada handbag, I’d dither. (I’m not proud of this, I’m only saying.)” ~ Marian Keyes

That’s another test – are you willing to persevere, even through times without apparent progress?

Other projects, mostly concerned with writing and sharing my knowledge, do have the potential to bring me professional success. That is where I have to keep my focus.

2. Lessening Distractions

If you are like me your studio is in your home. There is a wealth of information at various work-from-home blogs about ways to make it clear to other people that this is work time, and that just because you are at home doesn’t mean you are available to chit chat. So I’m not going to talk about those tricks. (Not one single one has ever worked for me other than refraining from answering the phone sometimes.)

The distractions I mean are those from within your arts practice – the sudden urge to sew something instead of writing, a new idea that keeps on intruding into your thoughts, the great technique you just saw on that video linked to the intriguing email.

“The scholar’s greatest weakness: calling procrastination research.” ~ Stephen King

It’s tough. I’m not good at ignoring ideas when they pop into my head. So I recommend pausing to make a note  – but not going into detail – and getting the idea or plan into a keeper file format of some kind. Jot it down in a journal or sketchbook – make your book small enough that filling a page is a quick activity. Or use the audio memo feature on your phone to get the idea out of your mind.


 3. Mental Compartmentalizing

As a home schooling family my daughter needs my attention at all kinds of times. I learnt through practice to switch mental gears. Moving my attention from my engrossing writing project to whatever she wants to show me, can be wrenching. But the sooner I help her, the sooner I can return to my work. It’s has become easier as she has aged.

Recent creativity enhancement studies have shown that taking a break from heavily creative mental activity to engage in something repetitive, simple and relatively mindless – eg folding laundry, sorting blocks by color, brushing the dolly’s hair – results in a renewed burst of enhanced creativity after the break.

I will also save some of the physical realization of a project (having done the designing earlier) for times when we are hanging out together.

 4. Willingness to do the Business part

Talk about mental compartmentalizing – it’s a whole other skillset to consider the marketing, bookkeeping, legalities and tax consequences of running a creative business. Luckily there are lots of tools to help from Turbotax software, to time recording apps, to project planning downloads and apps like WorkFlowy.

Here is my Paper Li paper about small business marketing practices. There is so much available out there. I tend to spend more time reading than I should, but officially I have set aside 4 hours one day a week for what I am calling “professional development” where I learn about marketing, sales, and listen to webinars.

HHughes Craft Fair

5. Ability to turn off the Business part.

Yes Facebook, that means you. 

Marketing can be so much fun that you get lost in it and allow it to become a tool for procrastination.

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone” ~ Pablo Picasso

My answer is scheduling, timers and then keeping track of actual time – when I do that I’m productive. When I make my best guess, I suddenly find it’s Tuesday and I haven’t made my Monday blog post.


Aesthetic Preference – Asian Fusion

145. Unframed Japanese theater print - musicians (559x800)

In honor of my late mother-in-law’s birthday this month…..

This is a preference close to my heart, because my late father-in-law and mother-in-law were both collectors and aficionados of Asian art as well as students of oriental spiritual traditions, including Buddhism. My husband grew up in a home filled with Hindu thangkahs,  bronze Buddhas and Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian prints, embroideries and paintings.

Despite many of their pieces being antiques, the colors of these traditional art pieces can be so vibrant, often jewel tones.  The motifs can be found in vintage textiles like silk kimonos, or in origami papers that are easy to find and enjoy.

I grew up with several beautiful pieces my mother bought in our travels to Asia including some hand painted scrolls, hanging with porcelain tassels as weights, and a beautiful silk batik of a horse on a field of bright red.  That one striking image always said “home” to me, wherever we happened to be.

Visually the look can range from very simple, graphic calligraphy, to blue and white china ware, through to highly detailed gilded carved screens and multi hued embroideries.

One reason I like to call it fusion is to incorporate the Chinoiserie from Europe – Oriental motifs and scenes from scrolls and stories recreated for European drawing rooms in folding screens or glass paintings.

I describe it in my Etsy Treasury as:

Asian traditional, Hindu pantheon, Buddha, ink, Japan, China and Persian – especially beautiful in a traditional or minimalist home – lustrous, gilded, serene, textured, calligraphic elements. “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “The Last Emperor”

I would add Pearl Buck stories, “Hawaii” and Kurosawa movies, zen gardens with rocks and gravel.


Buddha head on stand


Bringing it home

I think the key to incorporating this into your life is to love the individual pieces. Bronze statues or colorful prints go well in a minimalist environment, with clean lines and steel or concrete. But they also enliven traditional decor and furniture – dark wood, curved shapes.

It can be great fun to embrace the textiles – especially as scarves, accessories and in jewelry. I own some cloisonne enameled bangles that were my mother’s, again from our travels. Famous and beautiful Asian art pieces are often immortalized as note cards – another item my mother-in-law loved to collect and use for art pieces, like collages.

Oh and I don’t mean kuwaii – that’s a whole other aesthetic.

For a look at some of the pieces my husband was surrounded with, this auction at Paddle 8 continues for another 10 days or so.



Wish stars

A few nights ago my husband and I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 10th Anniversary Gala of the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic. The architect, Frank Gehry, was in attendance and the presentation was designed as a celebration of the design and creation of the concert hall building itself.

Conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, each piece represented a time in the process. The program was:

  • 4’33” by John Cage – that’s the famous silent piece.
  • Bach’s Prelude, from Cello Suite No. 3, with Yo-Yo Ma
  • Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, also with Yo-Yo Ma (who appeared to not have any sheet music in front of him)
  • “These Premises are Alarmed” by Adés
  • Symphony No. 9 by Mahler (III. Rondo: Burleske)
  • Symphony No. 3, “Organ” (IIb Maestoso) by Saint-Saëns – when the actual magnificent built in organ was played.

Each piece was introduced by quotes from a timely Gehry interview, talking about his design process. Then different video clips, presented on three oddly shaped geometric screens, projected on both sides for different places in the auditorium, accompanied the music. This part of the presentation was devised by Netia Jones (who is a fascinating multi-media artist).

The images began with Gehry’s preparatory, exploratory sketches, ingeniously animated, then moved on to his model making process. Gehry spoke of making hundreds and storing them, and continuing to move through the process of designing with the cardboard models. The slides showed images of numbered crates reminiscent of the final shot in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. (Did I mention I was 20 feet from Harrison Ford speaking only two nights earlier at another charity event?)

Then there were the criticisms, the complaints, the sarcasm in the press about the pace of the project – for a long time only the underground parking garage appeared to be completed. This frustrating time was represented by a visual collage of newspaper headlines and the semi-completed structure.

But in the end of course the building was finished and hailed as one of the masterpieces of contemporary architecture and a new cultural landmark for Los Angeles.

Disney Concert Hall exterior

There is no place where you can’t take a great shot anywhere around the building.

What most excited me was Gehry’s persistence. He continued not just to push for his vision, but through multiple iterations of it, through his own dissatisfactions, and through his search for methods. It is a building that would have been all but impossible (and certainly take much longer) to construct without the computer aided design software Gehry used.

Perseverance is not just not giving up on a project, and continuing to work on and refine an idea. It’s also being willing to discard that idea for better ones.

Persevering with Thinking

When I was working in design, whether it was costumes, sets or lighting, I always knew that my best idea was never the first one. Sometimes time constraints meant that it was the first idea that people liked and we went with, and sometimes it was too late to make the changes that would have improved the outcome.

So when I am working on any kind of creative project or new product, I try to allow time for the ideas to percolate. I sketch and consider the first idea – I get it out of my head and onto paper. But I continue to sketch, play, list, mindstorm, and tinker – not so much to modify the existing stream of thought, but to allow a completely new idea to bubble up.

It is just as important to continue working – editing, revisiting, rewriting, looking at the research, watching the rehearsals, playing with the materials – when you are reasonably satisfied with your work, as when you are frustrated by how it’s looking.

Jim Collins said, “Good is the enemy of great”. He was writing about corporations and companies which by consistent, persistent effort towards a single goal over a very long term gradually become greater than merely successful. But the phrase also works in considering creative projects. The model of the concert hall that won the contest for Gehry was good. But the final result is beyond that to be almost magical, because he wasn’t satisfied with good.

That’s one of the problems these creative competition shows have – Project Runway, Face Off, Work of Art, Design Star – severe lack of time. In the hotbed of competition, it’s not just the challenge of realizing their idea or design in a shortened time frame (which admittedly can happen in the real world occasionally). The real awfulness I imagine is the frustration of coming up with a better idea but being committed by time constraints to finishing what you have started. In support of this notion I present the time in the recent Project Runway episode when bottom three contestant, Dom Streater, was sent back to the workroom and completed a totally different and surprisingly winning look.

Dom Streater’s winning second attempt

What I know for sure is that when I don’t allow myself enough time to think, sketch, plan OR to realize and build, my work is never as good. I have to have time and use it to persevere through doubts, blocks, and sometimes the belief in my own unworthiness.

Perseverance is failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th~ Julie Andrews (member of the Gala Committee for the LA Phil Gala)

How to Persevere

  • Give yourself time for the process, and for creativity to blossom – but also know that the work expands to fill the time available! Just keep going – baby steps.
  • Give yourself more tries than you think you will need. By this I mean if you plan to make a list of 10 things, make it 20. If you plan to make three sketches, do six. If you have a story idea plotted out, spend some time imagining an alternative trajectory.
  • Rest, walk away and return. Let the subconscious percolation happen. Take a walk. Take a nap.
  • Get enough sleep. Eat enough food. I sometimes forget to eat when I’m lost in the timeless void of screenwriting. Luckily I have people around me who express that they are hungry.
  • Gehry would probably say that having sufficient storage space, to keep your first, second, third – who knows how many – attempts is also helpful.

Another time I’ll write about  the opposite problem – perfectionism and incompletion, and the risk of presenting your ideas and work to others.


The Encore was a beautiful rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star“, and silver mylar stars floated down from the ceiling. I was a wreck.