And you thought it was all about colour? The landscape artist's pre-eminent skill is the ability to understand and master tonal values: lights, darks, mid-tones. Mapping their relationships with each other, and their position within the context of a painting will define success - or failure - for the finished work.
The subjects I choose to paint are often at the bookends of the day: sunrise and sunset. If not, then somewhere in the proximity when the sun is lower in the sky; long, deep shadows and crisp, luminous highlights. As any landscape photographer worth their salt will tell you, this is when the dynamic range - the distance between the brightest highlight and the darkest shadow - is at its most pronounced. As the sun rakes the landscape it defines the macro shapes of the landmass, and the micro texture of its detail. Observing and understanding how these contrasts describe what we see is fundamental to creating dynamic and believable landscape art.
By working in monochrome a value study, such as this one of Old Harry Rocks in Dorset, avoids the confusion of colour. The focus is on form and how it is defined by the tonal values of light and dark. It allows the artist to position elements in an optimal arrangement and adjust the tonal contrasts in order to add visual interest. Taking time to sketch these values without concern for colour or detail enables the artist to make decisions, allowing shapes with similar tonal values to connect without strongly defined edges. It promotes a confident approach the final painting. A poorly coloured landscape painting with strong, compelling tonal values will always impress far more than a tonally weak offering awash with glorious colour. The photography of Messieurs Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau speaks of this truth. The final movement of Gustav Mahler's second symphony is an object lesson in tonal contrast, the placement of light and shade for dramatic effect. Compare and contrast with the insipid sound-soup of Ravel's tonally monotonous Bolero.
It pays to spend time resolving the relationship between light and dark - you will be rewarded in your work. In this short tutorial I show you how to map out these tones in a value study, and the importance of recording what you see, not what your mind's-eye tells you. The cliffs in this are predominantly chalk; chalk is white. I have painted these mostly in a heavy, dark grey. Overcoming such optical illusions at an early stage prevents incoherent paintings later on, but I'll let you watch the tutorial and explore this idea with a coffee; black, white or perhaps just a mid-tone somewhere in the middle?