I love words, and among the words I love best is bugaboo. It’s a playful-sounding word; it’s light-hearted, and it makes me laugh.
What, exactly is a bugaboo?
According to Merriam-Webster, a bugaboo is “an imaginary object of fear.” It can also be defined as “something that causes fear or distress out of proportion to its importance.”
All right. I’ll accept that those are good definitions for the word, yet at the same time, I disagree just a bit. When it comes to art, you see, my bugaboo is far from imaginary. It’s also highly important, thus my distress is not out of proportion.
What is that old bugaboo of mine? Tonal values. Getting a broad range of values from light to dark. Having contrast in values, and all the while being sure my values are logical, meaning that I have shadows where shadows should be, a light source that is identifiable, and — the newest component of my bugaboo — that my paintings show an understanding of relative values.
Thus it is that I work with a lot of value studies and tonal underpaintings. And, thus it is that I’m never sure if what I’m doing is working or not.
Consider this tonal underpainting I completed for a seascape I currently have in progress:
I’ll be tweaking a bit when I begin the oil painting. This underpainting, by the way, is done with acrylic.
I’m not happy with the shape of the rocks at the lower left. That can be easily changed.
What I’m most curious about, though, is the sky. I worked from an online reference photo, printed it out in black and white, and did my best to draw the scene accurately and to accurately show the values from the reference.
It may be difficult to see, but I do have brilliant white in places (following the reference), and I do have some dark darks — not quite black. I think my shadowed areas are correct, with all the shadows falling at the right and front of the rocks.
What I feel unsure about as I look at this tonal underpainting is the amount of darker values in the sky. And here is where my old bugaboo starts biting me.
What typically happens is that I tend to lighten up those too-dark places, or I darken the too-light places. Either way, I end up with a painting that has little tonal value. But if I leave those high contrasts as I paint, they always seem too jarring, too distracting. They stand out, call attention to themselves, and make me question my values all over again.
So, before I proceed on this painting, I’d love a few thoughts. How do my values look to you? Is there anything in this tonal underpainting that you would suggest changing, as far as the values go?
For comparison, here is my tonal underpainting and the black-and-white version of the reference photo. I did take a bit of creative license and increased the area of the sky. Maybe that’s why I’m now questioning that area.
Hmmm… in looking at them side-by-side, I can see that the upper left of my underpainting needs to be darker, the right side maybe a little lighter. I also see that I need a bit of gray toward the bottom right of the painting. That would definitely provide a better balance to the values.
What do you think? What do you see that I could change or improve in this tonal underpainting? Please, help me defeat that old bugaboo of mine! I will forever be grateful.