Lights and Darks in 3’s

Lights and Darks in 3’s by Michael Newberry
One big problem that artists face when developing light and shadow in a work is that they tend to have the exact same darks and lights scattered around the surface. The result is that it kills the life out of the drawing!

A great way to solve that problem is to celebrate a hierarchy of lights and darks. The simplest way to do that is to focus on three different tones of lights and darks.

Here I will take you through what I mean.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks
Dreams of Round Things, 2006, charcoal on Rives BFK, 26 x 19 inches.

After I had lined up the proportions of Kelly, I was ready to organize my tones.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks

The real-life background was a dark, cobalt blue felt air mattress. Since the darkest object was going to be her hair, I chose the mattress as my 2nd darkest object.
Female Nude, Lights and Darks
Here I have two things blocked out–her dark hair and the background.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks
Here I added my third dark–her cast shadow on the floor. Next, I started on the lights. The highlight on the wood floor was going to be my least brightest of the lights.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks

My choice for tones was not arbitrary. I compared and contrasted all the tones in my field of vision. Kelly has a lovely light skin, so I knew she was going to be the lightest thing in the drawing, even though she was predominately in shadow.

After I mildly block out the light of the floor I was ready to start on her. The light on her leg looks almost shockingly bright, but, technically, I knew that brighter whites were to me.

For you artists, I was using soft charcoal pencils and a kneaded eraser. The kneaded erasers are wonderful for lightening the paper, yet it takes some hard erasers to bring out the brightest whites.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks
Here everything is blocked out. I clearly have dark, darker, and darkest : the cast shadow, the background, and her hair.

For the lights, the highlights on her shoulder, breast, and forearm are the brightest. The rest of her body is the second brightest while the surface of the floor is the least bright.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks
For the rest of the drawing, I am molding, tweaking, and detailing her and the background–being careful to be well aware of my hierarchy of lights and darks.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks

Female Nude, Lights and Darks

Towards the end of the drawing is the easiest place to lose sight of your hierarchy of the lights and darks. For example, I began to add the details of the shadows and highlights of the mattress’ circular cushions. There were many really dark shadows, and, of course, the mistake would have been to make them as dark as her hair. So it took some discipline to make them as dark as possible without stepping over the boundary to my darkest black.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks

The consequence is that her hair has a kind of brilliant, rich freshness to it that would have been lost otherwise.

It should be a lot of fun for you to try this technique out–or to look for a hierarchy of lights and darks in other artists’ works. Enjoy.

Michael Newberry
New York, September 17th, 2006

Integration, Part 1: Light

Integration, Part 1: Light by Michael Newberry

Integration is, perhaps, the most complex problem in making art. Often it is the cause of an artist’s agony and ecstasy.In this series on integration, each tutorial will focus on one problem and show how the solution fits into the whole.

The theme of Counterpose is about a harmony of contrast. At that time in my life, it reflected my quest to pull together many different aspects of art and life and to balance them.

I have removed the color from this image so that we can focus on the tonal values of the light.

Newberry, Counterpose b/w demo

Counterpose, 1990, oil on linen, 36×42″ (Black/white photo)
Notice the dramatic difference between the highlights on her face and fingers and the dark casted shadows. I am purposefully using light and shadow to support the painting’s theme of contrast.

In the orange circle, you can see the high contrast of the fabric of the folds.

Newberry, Counterpose b/w demo
Almost every part of her body has an element of contrast between the light and shadow. You will notice that the highest contrasts are in the foreground and as parts of her body recede away from us the contrast diminishes. This also allows for her body to be integrated into space, which, of course, is another tutorial.

Newberry, Counterpose b/w demo
As a foil to Counterpose, the theme of Denouement is about the radiance of love. It has a much softer, diffused light which radiates out from the lamp on the floor.

Though these b/w photos are of the finished paintings in color, I did paint a monochromatic underpainting for both of them. The advantage of monochromatic under-painting is that it is easier to organize all the tonal values and details without the added worry of the hue (color values) of things.

If you are a painter struggling with a mess that isn’t coming together, take the color out and it will immediate help pull the work together. From that point, go back into color, carefully matching the color with your monochromatic tonal values.

Newberry, b/w of Denouement

Denouement, 1987, oil on linen (Black/white photo)

Here is a side by side comparison of Counterpose in color and without.

Newberry, Counterpose contrast

The next tutorial on integration will be about the high contrast of color in Counterpose.
Michael Newberry
New York, July 28th, 2006

Integration, Part 2: Color

Integration, Part 2: Color by Michael Newberry

Newberry, Counterpose demo

Newberry, Counterpose, 1990, oil on linen, 36×42″
In the tutorial, Integration of Light, I mentioned that the theme of Counterpose is about a harmony of contrast. I showed how I painted extreme contrasts in light and dark. In this tutorial, I am showing how, keeping to the theme of contrast, I painted extremes of color contrasts.

The main color theme is about the contrast of her hot red hair and warm colors of her body with the cool blues of the futon cover.

Newberry, Counterpose demo

Perhaps more important than that, and perhaps much more subtle is the color contrast between the objects in the light and the objects in shadow.

The set up started with a yellowish-orange incandescent light bulb, which gave the objects yellowish highlights.
Here, in the areas circled with blue, I am showing the violet and blue-violet shadows on her body. Her foot is shaped with light and dark violets, yet her foot is essentially bathed in shadow; it is not touched by the direct yellow light.

Newberry, Counterpose demo

The contrast between violet shadows and yellow highlights is one of the most radical color contrasts possible. And yet, I believe, I have given them a natural-looking, harmonious glow.

To understand how color contrast works, a color wheel is indispensable. It is out of the scope of this tutorial to discuss how a color wheel is based upon natural visual phenomena; for the moment trust me on that.

Newberry, Counterpose demo colorwheel

The classic contrasts are red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and violet. One reason they are considered opposites is that when you mix them you get a non-color; something neither gray nor brown.

When you juxtapose contrasting colors they serve a bit like contrasting black and white, you get an intense burst of color vibration. If you put violet next to yellow, it pops and excites the eye.

Here I outlined a few of the highlights on the blue fabric. These highlights have a slight greenish tint to them because of the yellow light. If you add yellow light to blue cloth you get green.

Newberry, Counterpose
As we get further away from the direct yellow light that is smacking green at the front the futon, the blue of the futon merges progressively with the violet color.

Newberry, Counterpose demo
Whether it is a high contrast of color in the light, or the color contrast of flesh, cloth, background, and hair in this painting, you will find an endless kaleidoscope of pure color contrasts: blue vs. orange, yellow vs. violet, and red vs. green.

Newberry, Counterpose demo

As simple as Counterpose may look, it’s a very complex painting with many variations on the theme of a harmony of contrasts.

Next in the series on integration I will be discussing how her pose embellishes the theme.

Michael Newberry
New York, September 17th, 2006

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

Charcoal Drawing Part 2 by Michael Newberry

In Charcoal Drawing Part 1 you will find what are quality materials you need to get the best results.

With this tutorial, I will take you through the drawing stages.

charcoal drawing demo

The preparation takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Now that you have prepared the paper you are ready to roll.

charcoal drawing demo

The charcoal rub on the paper is neither black nor light, but solidly in the middle of the tonal range. Here I am drawing with General’s charcoal pencil 6b. You will notice that I hold the pencil at the back end. It may not seem important, but you might be amazed at how the mark making becomes more fluid.

charcoal drawing demo

After the drawing the composition, I begin to “block” out the darker areas using the soft compressed charcoal stick. Notice that with this too I hold it lightly at the back end. My preference is to drag the charcoal barely touching down on the paper.

Shadows are s difficult business, it is crucial that they feel mysterious and transparent. If you are too firm they will “sit” on the surface, destroying the spatial depth, and any hope of the drawing creating a feeling of light.

charcoal drawing demo
Here I have blocked out the major areas of dark.

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

Using a kneaded eraser I block out the lighter areas, but only a small degree. As with the charcoal, lightly drag the kneaded eraser over the paper. I tend at this stage to draw and erase with uniform rows of lines, a la da Vinci. This keeps the whole image calm, and uniform.

Below, I roll the kneaded eraser into a nub, which I use to erase the charcoal. These erasers need to be kneaded. If not, the charcoal cakes it. Think of a dishwasher sponge covered in bacon fat. That analogy is a little extreme, but just keep kneading the eraser, and it will stay fresh and clean for a long time.

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

Here are the results of blocking out both the lights and darks.

Below, I start refining the details I see, both erasing and drawing.

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

Now I am at a difficult stage. The drawing is set up well, but I have to drive it home. Most important now is to clearly visualize the where the objects are in space. I compare the front corner of the glass vase, with other corners, and with the back and front of the table. Below you can see I am accenting the front corner with darker marks, which helps the corner pop forward.

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

While I am drawing and looking at details, I am squinting most of the time. Squinting enables us to see the nuance of tones and the essential details of light and shadow.

Charcoal Drawing Part 2

The kneading eraser will only wipe out so much of the charcoal. To make the brightest lights, the Pink Pearl eraser does an outstanding job. It is too powerful for the subtle earlier stages but perfect for slashing the shimmering brights.

Newberry, Glass Vase

Newberry, Glass Vase, 2012, charcoal on Rives BFK, 22 x 14 inches.

I hope you enjoyed seeing erasers in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
Los Angeles, May 2012

Triangulation of Light and Dark

Triangulation of Light and Dark

contemporary oil painting, stil life
Three Fruits, oil on canvas, 12 x 9 inches.

by Michael Newberry

Some months ago I had a catalytic, aesthetic breakthrough–I discovered the tremendous value of the triangulation light and dark. It has sped my realistic technique, intensified eye movement, and allowed for more subtlety than I could have imagined.

Here is one piece which fully realized this technique, Three Fruits, 2006, oil on canvas panel, 12 x 9 inches.

To create the feeling of light, it is important to have a hierarchy of lights and darks. If you have several lights and darks of equal value spread over a canvas, you will surely kill off any life and excitement in your work. The problem is that it is very difficult to keep track of all the subtle shifts in tone. On the opposite side, you can be so subtle and afraid to paint powerfully that you end up with a dull mess. One answer, for me, is this triangulation of light and dark.


The idea is to be clear what your bright, brighter, and brightest areas are. Hence, triangulation: you compare the three brightest simultaneously. The white plate is the brightest, the tops of the fruits next and then the front corners of the yellow cloth.

It is crucial not to have any other competition with those bright areas or you lose the effect.

Finally with the darks I did a similar comparison–finding my dark, darker, and darkest areas. Here the darkest is the area directly behind the plate and fruit. It’s as black ivory as I could make. Next is an area in the framed art piece on the easel, followed by the shadow under the plate. Again it is important that the 4th, 5th, etc. dark areas become simply neutral darks, not getting close enough in tone to compete against your darkest areas.

Do try it out on some of your works I believe you will see immediate rewarding results.

Michael Newberry