Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Tone and Color

Posted in photography, Uncategorized by Jason Gray on June 26, 2010

So far, we have covered line, shape and space, all necessary elements for composing a composition. However, what we have left out is probably the most significant element of two-dimensional work, tone and color. The world’s shortest version of art history goes like this; art history, up until 19th-Century photography, is the struggle for supremacy between painting and sculpture. Traditionally, art has been the battle field of a sort of gigantomachy; on one hand, there is painting with its innate advantage of color, and on the other hand, there is sculpture with its inherent strength over form. In truth, they are so evenly matched as opponents that the only way for either side to “win” is to figure out how to do what the other one does better, and so art history is the study of painting making arithmetical progress upon mastering form, and of sculpture making headway on color. In the 1800’s a series of experimental successes birthed a new art media that, from the beginning matched form to reality more convincingly than sculpture ever had, and seemed primed to eventually usurp painting as most realistic colorist. This new media didn’t destroy the traditional art forms, however. Instead, it had the counter effect of “freeing” them from needing to imitate reality, and so a whole ideology of abstract art was born. How’s that for concise?

“When we compare painting with photography, we have a concept of each, which we then put to the test.” -Hans Belting

So what does tone and color do? Well, if line draws in interest to the main subject, and shape gives clarity to what is in the composition, and space provides a setting for the main object(s), then tone and color add depth to the plane (as well as, an expressive signature). But, how can depth be achieved in a two-dimensional plane?

“People came up to his vast pictures very quietly, and toppled over into them without a murmur and came out with nothing to say.” -Kenneth Rexroth, on the work of Clyfford Still

Mankind has grown up deceived. Repeatedly, human beings have gone off looking to find truths, about their origins, their lives’ meaning, the direction they should be heading, and have returned from that endeavor believing comfortable myths and illusions instead. Reality is not what is important to the artist; what you choose to express about it is. Depth is not limited to what you can realistically extend your hand into. Depth, in art, can represent that sort of definition, but it can also imply something emotional, spiritual, or intellectual. In a black and white photograph, tone gives definition to “the round” (or the 3-D), just as color does in a color photograph. This is easily understood, and something which we will touch upon later when discussing light and exposure. However, depth can also mean something else, and that is what I will cover below.

Tone- the correlation of black, gray and white in a picture.

If light tones dominate, the mood of the picture is happy and playful.

Example 1:

Example 2:

If dark tones dominate, the mood of the picture is sad, mysterious, or serious.

Example 1:

Example 2:

Color- traditionally, a color photograph should exhibit one dominate color and a balance between bright colors and softer shades

Warm Colors (red, orange, yellow), convey action and energy, or suspense (red) and bliss (yellow)

Example 1:

Example 2:

Cool Colors (blue, green, violet), express restfulness and peace, but can also suggest sickliness (green)

Example 1:

Example 2:

These rules of color and tone distribution can of course be bended or broken, or even re-invented. In this regard, your intuition is something that you should trust. Use color and tone as you imagine them; as David Wojnarowicz said, “One of the last frontiers left for radical gesture is the imagination.”


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