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Harold Speed Chapter 6, Tone Exercises

Happy New Year, everybody, and thanks for visiting the blog. Today we'll take a look at Chapter 6: "Elementary Tone Exercises" from Harold Speed's 1924 art instruction book Oil Painting Techniques and Materials.

I'll present Speed's main points in boldface type either verbatim or paraphrased, followed by comments of my own. If you want to add a comment, please use the numbered points to refer to the relevant section of the chapter.

The Selene Horse from the Parthenon (Image source)
1. "There is nothing better than simple, direct, solid painting."
By "solid" he means opaque. The opaque paint allows you to get smooth, flat, tones, but it requires you to be accurate in mixing those tones.

2. "Nothing is as good as a clean cast placed in a strong light and shade."
He's recommends doing studies from a plaster cast, probably of a classic figural sculpture, something without too much detail. Casts are available from companies like Masters International. If you'd like to recommend sources for casts in the comments, I'll add them here.

3. To paint accurately you have to see the world as if it were flat.
Speed says this isn't easy because we're not accustomed to ignoring the third dimension, due to our stereoscopic vision.

4. "It is a help to look at what you are going to paint through a rectangular hole cut in a card, across which straight lines have been drawn with cotton threaded through at equal distances, both ways, drawn tightly."
I've tried making a string-net viewfinder like he describes, and it doesn't work nearly as well as an acrylic sheet with a forehead spacer, as I demonstrate on my new video.

Speed says: "these mechanical helps should not be relied upon too much, and should be dispensed with as soon as possible, as they interfere with freedom of expression." He has a point. If any technique undermines your confidence or restricts your freedom to make aesthetic choices, it may not be helpful.

But it depends on what you want to accomplish with a given painting or study. If what you want to do is capture exactly what you see, why not start with an efficient method for doing so? It's not really any more mechanical than the "segment and slope" method. Sometimes dead-on accuracy is what I want to achieve. But other times I want to subtly change and alter what I see for expressive purposes.

While I respect artists who apply an absolute moral code to their studio practices, I am a pragmatist in such matters. I believe the results will always justify the method. My observation is that artists with fixed or absolute ideas about "right" or "wrong" methods or ideas about "cheating" will end up trapped within the walls that they have constructed. I do agree with Speed when he says: "Nothing is done on a canvas that has not first been conceived in the mind."

Albert Edelfelt academic study
5. (Process) 
a) "The first lay in should be as simple a map of these tone masses as you can reduce your subject to."
b) First lay down the tones of the light and the shadow each with a thin average tone, and then subdivide the large mass into smaller forms. In Creative Illustration, Andrew Loomis calls this the "Big Tone Approach."
c) Half-closing the eyes makes it easier to see the average tone. The eye is attracted to little accents at first, so this can be difficult.
d) Paint background first, just thick enough to cover solidly, but not too thick. Save your thick painting for later.
e) Keep the tones simple and flat, but spend time and attention on the halftones and transitions from light to shade. This is something Sargent and Carolus-Duran emphasized, too.
f) Scrape it out if it doesn't work. Also something Sargent did.
g) Don't keep patting it with your brush. Think first then add a stroke.
h) Speed talks about working in front of a window, but if you want absolutely controlled conditions, you can work under an artificial light. I have always preferred the changeability of window light.
i) After you've practiced with casts you can proceed to other still life objects of varying colors and textures, and then to the figure and to real life.

6. (Tools and Materials) 
a) Use a flat brush with rounded corners. Here's a website that discusses oil brush shapes. Silver brushes are good, but there are many brands available.
b) Use the largest brush you can stand.
c) Hold the brush as far up the handle as possible.
d) Speed recommends using raw umber as a good color for the first pass especially because it dries fast and is fairly neutral.

7. Lines down the form emphasize toughness and across the form softness, and in every direction mystery and atmosphere.
Andrew Loomis (above) talks about this too, in his excellent instructional book Creative Illustration, and I wonder if he got it from Mr. Speed.

8. The Mosaic Method
This is closer to the method taught by Carolus-Duran. I discussed this in a previous post on Carolus Duran's Method. He concludes by talking about yet another method of doing studies, where you let an underpainting dry and then glaze and scumble some semi-transparent color over it. This kind of method is discussed at some detail in Solomon J. Solomon's book, The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing.

Next week—Chapter 7: Colour.
In its original edition, the book is called "The Science and Practice of Oil Painting." Unfortunately it's not available in a free edition, but there's an inexpensive print edition that Dover publishes under a different title "Oil Painting Techniques and Materials," and there's also a Kindle edition.
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Harold Speed Chapter 6, Tone Exercises


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