Tag Archives: monochrome

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.

Edges

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.

Element of Design – Color Schemes – An Introduction

I’m going to talk about how I use color in my arts practice. Here’s why.

There are numerous sources and resources for learning about the science of color, and the biology of the human eye so I need not quote others.

Human eye diagram

Diagram of an eye from Wikimedia commons. Frankly I think it looks like a fish at first glance.

Briefly, humans can perceive light within our visual spectrum through special photo receptors – color loving cones and low light rods – and the lenses and aqueous humor of our eyes. The combination of frequencies within “white” light that are either absorbed or reflected by different materials indicates their color. There is no color in the dark.

There are also great sites full of information about the emotional effects of color – a topic that is canvassed every day by artists and designers. Pantone offers it’s Color of the Year as a trend color. This year (2013) it is Emerald.

There are some beautiful color sphere graphics available, too. When I was in design school, we used designer’s gouache in specific colors and mixed the rest of our color wheel. There was a warm and a cool red, a warm and a cool yellow, and a warm and cool blue, along with black and white in our basic kit. We used these to create our own color wheel – the hues. It was fairly simple to do – the cool red and cool blue created the purple, the warm red and warm yellow made the orange, and the cool yellow combined with the warm blue to make a vivid green. However there was also the concept of “alternative mixtures” – creating a different purple by mixing the opposite combinations of blue and red.

A vintage color sphere from 1905

  • Tints are hues mixed with white.
  • Shades are hues mixed with black.
  • Neutrals are hues mixed with grey – at least in terms of color theory definitions.

I think the word “neutral” is often used in practice to refer to a background or foundation color in a larger scheme. In fashion they sometimes talk of “new neutrals” and variously claim that black or white can be a neutral, as can red, purple or navy along with the traditional beige or grey.

Color is used to make things more visible – dye for microscope work, color coding for brain scans or MRI’s. The colors assigned to certain effects have been chosen by the programmers, usually skewing towards red for greatest activity, blue for quietest. When color is reversed from our expectations we can feel uncomfortable.

Blue banana

Color is probably the most important Design Element to be considered in any intentional design process. It certainly has been a prominent feature of my scenic, lighting and certainly costume design work.

One of my favorite texts is a book called The Language of Clothes. Author Alison Lurie talks a lot about the cultural significance of different colors, along with the messages that our own clothes send – even when we are unwitting. Of course as a costume designer, my responsibility was to intentionally illuminate aspects of character and story for the individual characters, and contribute to the overall effect, spine and spectacle of the production.

When I was in college, I conducted a series of experiments having actors work brief scenes wearing their own neutral clothing, and again with one or two items of costume added to see if it changed their performance. It wasn’t exactly a double blind test, but part of my goal was for the actors to see the “costume effect” at work, even so simply. I think a couple of them were pretty surprised at just how much a single garment – a hat, a scarf – would alter their body language and feelings. Costume design can be tough. People don’t always want to wear something they perceive as unflattering – even if it is right for the character. And a lot of time that has to do with color and how people feel wearing a certain color.

Do you always wear the same colors, or color combinations? Have you considered changing things around in your closet and trying some different combinations?

I use color a lot in Lighting Design also. I’m talking here about lighting the stage, not movie work or architectural lighting. In lighting color temperature is important – it’s what makes incandescent light look more orange, and candlelight warmer still, and what makes fluorescent light look green compared to outside daylight. It’s what makes golden hour – the last hour before sunset – give everyone and everything a luscious glow. If you do any kind of photography at all you know a little about color temperature and white balance.

For lighting in the theater, most of the light starts out pretty warm, especially at low levels. Most of the time white light would be augmented with highlights in complementary opposites. Stare too long at one color, and when you look away at a white surface, you see the opposite for a moment. In theater lighting you want balance and often the sense of movement and excitement. A single color exhausts the Cones, and eventually starts being perceived as grey.

Color Schemes

Designing with color is an elegant dance combining the physical effects of color combination and the emotional meanings behind colors.

Monochrome is the use of a single hue, with a range of tonal values created by tints and shades. Analogous colors are close to each other on the color wheel, while complementary colors are far apart. There are schemes that use two, three, four or more points on the wheel – although eventually you just have a riot of every hue if you go much more than four.

Picasso’s Blue Period – the jug and the bread take it from true monochrome to accented analogic

In Monochrome schemes other Elements can become important – texture, line, shape. But here’s something interesting. Thumb through the pages of Architectural Digest or any home magazine. The most luxurious interiors tend to be mostly monochrome. The textures of luxury – fine leathers, linens, furs, shining metals – become more important. It is rare that there is true monochrome, without a touch of other color. Even in the case of interiors, there is always the view out of the window to supply the enlivening contrast.

In a complementary scheme, emphasis can be created with color in a curious way. It is the tiny spot becomes the most important, eye drawing and attention getting point – the part that is different, anomalous, unusual. I haven’t covered the concept of focal points yet, but I will.

Analogous color schemes are closest to monochrome. They can end up lacking energy (exhausted cones and the greying effect), and in blues and cool colors are even soothing. I have read repeatedly that babies cry more in yellow rooms – but I’m still searching for the original study. And by the way, the idea that red cars get more speeding tickets is a myth.

The color scheme is very bright Triad - but the focus becomes that which stands out - the black and white photos.

The color scheme is very bright Triad – but the focus becomes that which stands out – the black and white photos.

The only occasions when I have consciously tried to design to a type of scheme is when I was creating scrapbook layouts to illustrate the specific concepts and the use of my lovely color wheel for my scrapbooking classes. Usually I have not needed to specify Analogous or Complementary color schemes. The need – the initial design problem – dictates the scheme automatically. There are the conventions of a genre (or the Aesthetic Preference) to consider.

Madeline layout muted primary colors

Madeline layout – Triad with muted primary colors

Plus being mostly in performing arts, my design work has always had the added parameters of Time and Change. A single set still has different times of day, movement of the actor through the space, using lighting to subtly or emphatically indicate change. Any time there is a narrative, there is change happening over time.

What Emphatic Values are most important for this project? Do I want the strong and lively colors of the Triad, for more spectacle, or is the subtle nuance of character development more likely to shine with a simple Analogous scheme, the theatrical equivalent of a black and white movie.

One early triumph was in the use of color as messenger or signpost for the audience. The biographical play, Here Comes Kisch, had a large cast of people playing multiple characters, with the exception of the eponymous hero. I hit upon the idea of using a Complementary color scheme in the costumes to instantly and clearly signify to the audience whether any character was a supporter (warm red, brown and some green) or detractor (cold blues, greys, cool purple). It worked really well, and was lively and vivid too.

Is there ever a time in visual art that color doesn’t matter?

There is more about color – contrasting dischords for example – but I want to talk about it more after the design Element, Tonal Value. Using color exercises to enhance your creativity is whole series of themes. Stay tuned….

Element of Design – Texture

Encrusted beading on art doll

Texture is a tactile experience, or the visual illusion of a tactile experience. Texture is characterized by changes in the surface, or the apparent absence of changes in the surface. Texture is about adding interest and the sense of layers, so that we wonder what lies beneath that so interesting surface.

Texture functions emotionally to generate desire – you want to touch and feel – or to repulse – something is scary, dangerous or uncomfortable. It’s not that it tastes bad, it’s that the texture is unpleasant in the mouth.

Texture is a continuum, from smooth or shiny through to rough. It is partly defined by how much friction it would generate. .

To paraphrase Horatio GreenoughTexture follows function. In nature it’s all about surface area in a limited volume – bumps, pores, folded shapes. Think of villi in the intestines, the surface of a tongue, spines or scales, the shape of pine needles, fur to capture and hold heat.

Human design also uses texture for surface area, to generate or eliminate friction, for practicality. Think of knitwear (“warm and fuzzy”), rugs and home insulation, the old “cottage cheese” ceilings, aerodynamics in aircraft and cars.

Flip Doll

Texture becomes more important when other Elements of Design are simplified – a monochromatic color scheme for example, or when simple shapes are repeated. Texture can add the sensation of depth.

Monochrome heritage layout

Texture in Art – Texture as Illusion

In visual art there is the implied visual texture within the images. Think of old masters painting the lush velvets, encrusted embroideries, glowing skin of their royal patrons. But brush strokes – the mechanism of the art – were hidden and minimized as much as possible.

Then came the explosion of Impressionism and later Expressionism, making texture serve an emotional meaning. Then with the rise of Modernism, Texture became a primary element. The qualities of the paint itself, no doubt influenced by the invention of new paints including fast drying acrylics and the new acrylic “oils” – are revealed by intentional brushstrokes. The art increasingly shows the artist’s hand and thought processes as more important than whatever the subject of the painting might be.

Here’s my little bit of controversy – because I don’t care for the Wikipedia definition of Abstract Art. I’m recalling instead discussions of art theory we students used to enjoy back when I was in college.

I prefer the definition that Abstract art is taking a personal point of view, personal vision of a subject away from realism to find the soul or express an attitude about that subject. The subject can become abstracted to the point of being totally unrecognizable, reduced to geometry or just color and texture.

Non-subjective modernism, often misnamed as “abstract art” embraces the qualities of medium entirely. It is about the paint, the texture, the color – without narrative content (supposedly). Ah humans – we tend to want to construct stories and make connections no matter how much the choreographer says “don’t feel, just count”.

Think of sculpture which for thousands of years has been about manipulating a hard, dense material to create the sensation of soft, pliable surfaces. In recent times, artists making soft sculptures have used fabrics and flexible materials to visualize the opposite.

Rolled and inked paper roses

Surprises

Sometimes the visual appearance belies the texture and the viewer gets a surprise on touching the object. Or distance mystifies the amount of texture in a surface. Think of electron microscopy revealing the unseen textures of surfaces beyond our imagination. The smooth steel of a knife blade revealed as pitted and layered as a rocky sandstone. Here is the fractal universe displayed.

Texture might be a function of randomness – spraying, splattering, combing, cross hatching.

Jayn at Hearst Castle

Photo Credit: James Coburn

Texture in Music

When I think of texture as it applies to music, I think of layering of instruments and the repetition of motifs or phrases with different instruments. Perhaps resonance is an equivalent of texture, or vibrato in a voice. Anything that adds interest and depth to the music might be termed adding texture.

In Writing

I like to think of texture in writing as creating a sensory experience with the words. Texture might be filling in visual background detail (but not so much that it detracts from the progression of the story) or imbuing minor characters with different voices or quirks. It is a way of adding interest.

It also might be created through manipulating word sounds – so that it is revealed viscerally through reading aloud. Read “Harry Potter” aloud, or indeed any of J.K. Rowling’s work aloud. It changes the experience. The addition or absence of sibilance, the repetition of certain sounds or words, the cadence of dialects revealed – that is texture at work.

Creating Texture

Sometimes texture is inherent in the material like marble countertops, granite building blocks, woodgrain, or honey comb candy. If not, and it is desired for interest and depth, then it must be added.

The illusion of texture can be created with lines, including cross hatching, shapes and repetition, and shadowing or shading. I have created the illusion of texture with lighting – using gobos and angles to cast shadows.

Multiple textures actual and implied

Actual texture can be created by adding material, removing material (think carving or burn out lace) or manipulating material, either in the construction process (like crochet or tatting, weaving or impressing into clay) or with a finished base (like ironing in pleats, gathering or folding).

Layout using textures and vintage photo

Texture added with pleated paper, crumpling and sequin embellishments to the sense of texture created by the differently scaled prints.

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