Visual language

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Visual language


It all starts with learning to SEE!

This book is a catalyst in developing your artist's eye. The information will strengthen the foundation from which you view the world, and hopefully, enhance the viewing, and picture making pleasures of this existence, even forthe non-painter.

Visual forms of art from the mind or life, which depict our experience, contain great power over our emotions. They tap into our main stimulation source and memory. In the broadest sense, representational painting is the process of translating this experience into visual cues on a flat surface to be recognized by another as something. These visual cues can be collectively recognized, categorized, and organized like characters of the alphabet in this language of vision. They are, as are all two dimensional depictions, built from the four elements of Visual language, Value, Shape, Edges, and Texture, and they embody each mark made and their subsequent combinations, from the first stroke to the last. Simply learning to SEE and recognize them, instead of the things they represent, makes translating them to the surface of choice more deliberate. Doing this also eliminates false barriers in your mind where thinking "I don't know how to paint this or that,"' may come up. There is no this or that, no rocks or trees, or noses or clavicles, there are only shapes of value, with edgesin between, and how the physical paint looks. In thisway, the subject emerges from an abstract translation of the elements, keeping the process interesting and energizing, inst ead of literal and tiresome.

Of the human senses, vision is by far, the most depended on sense. We have a visual and spacial connectednesswith the world around us. We seeand navigate our world through spacial awareness, and congruence in our collective visual understanding and perception of things. While there most certainly are perception characteristics unique to each of us, we widely agree upon the general look of things. In representational painting we're working mostly within this visual parameter of "agreed upon," or we begin to risk the viewer's 'read' of our work. A fine thing, the viewer's read in jeopardy, if intended, and brilliantly orchestrated, but trust must be built with the viewer. When we begin to recognize the visual language elements in the subject, and relate them to how weperceive things, and vice-versa, weare learning to see. Competently translating them to a canvas, requireshand-eye coordination, and this canonly be acquired through practice.

What about TALENT?

Learning to draw or paint with sorme proficiency is almost like learning to read and write English, but having the advantage of already comprehending and speaking it. In learning to paint, we're only bridging the gap between 'seeing, calculating, and navigatingour surroundings' and 'translating  that three dimensional informationto a surface.' Through learned fluency, and even sorne proficiency in the fundamental elements of Visual language, someone might appearvery talented to the un familiar, or unpracticed.

The majority of time spent in this life choice is honing the finer parts of this visual poetry. lt ta kes very little timeto gain a proficiency in any medium, but a lifetime to narrow in on, ore volve a personal style, and visual "voice." There is no shortcut for pure 'brush mileage' or 'time on the easel,' but life experience, personality, and one's curiosity also lead to personalstyle, subject choice, and skill acquisition. Whether you aspire tolearn to paint for a living, or to simply improve upon a fulfilling pastime, the process can be an endeavor full of mystery and fascination.

You will utilize all of your brain through direct observation and sketching. After a time, you'll likely look closer at your other hobbies only to depict them better! lt's no wonder Leonardo De Vinci, and many others of the Renaissance era, would study cadavers at the local morgue. This ful filledan overwhelming intellectual curiosity forthem. To know about anatomical connections, structure, overlaps, and biomechanics meant to be able to depict figures better in their paintings. Plus they were getting upstaged by sculptors of long lost empires being unearthed or brought up from the sunken depths.

Direct and careful observation can cultivate higher levels of empathy towards each other, anda deeper connection to community, and to the land and wild places around us. lt builds awareness and community, and to the land and wild places around us. lt builds awareness and understanding of natural and man-made systems, all while piquing scientific curiosities attributing to the appearance of any subject of interest. Just remember, it's ALL learn ed, and it CAN ONLY be learned through accumulating know ledge and through diligent practice.

Start immediately! There ARE ways to gaín fluency in Visual Language at an accelerated rate. Fluency 'writing' this visual language requires fluency first in reading it, which is to say, the 'seeing' part. Learning to SEE, in a nutshell, is this book's primary purpose. By simply familiarizing oneself wíth the tour elements of Visual Language, an artist is equipping oneself with the creative tools for limitless visual possibilities. Even the non-artist will hopefully feel more visually connected to their surroundings, and have deeper appreciation for the work of serious representatíonal painters, and visual artists across all mediums. 

lt's the 'why' behind the scene. The science of seeing. From dream-scapes, to real ity around you, learn to 'read' the form and the light, and 'write' it using the four elements, and their relationships to one another. To portray an intention on a surface requires this fluency. Similar to photographic memory, seeing at this higher level, allows far logging of visual language element data in a waythat builds upan visual vocabulary instead of mentally storing whole scenes. There is no teacher better than simply the practice of translating scenes from your viewpoint . Any. With your surrounding as your guide, a self correcting,and highly tangible goal in your development naturally takes place. That goal isto, as accurately as possible, replicate a part of what you see, onto the canvas. Above all, keep the journey fun, and interesting! Feed your soul, your curiosity.

What if i don't work in oils?

Well, OK, but the medium has it all. lf you haveallergies, improvements have been made inthe water-misable oil paints. But oils are farless toxic than you might think, and it really is perfect far painting outdoors or on-location. lt has unmatched 'mistake forgiveness,' because of its opaque nature, and it is slow to dry. These traits also lend themselves to endless depiction possibilities, styles, and approaches, making it particularly well suited far beginners. Though based in oil painting, this book is a compilation of the principies of depiction, and will speak to those working in any medium.

Once a painter, always a student!

Representational painting has occupied sorneof the most brilliant minds in history, giving us broad shoulders to stand upon. There exists rich volumes on the teachings of painting. The very paintings themselves graciously give up the artist's secrets in capturing their subject, far they are an imprint into the artist's mind. There are many correet answers in this pursuit, which deepens all possibilities far style and genre exploration.

With giant ranges in levels of finish, who chooses when, and why somebody is a master? Master of what? Painting in general? Stylistically? Stylistically, a 'looser' or more 'painterly' look took hold with the advent of photography. A painting needed to be a painting again to be celebrated. Who's a master, anyone better than you for now, and your level will change, so who cares. There is seemingly endless nuance in any chosen direction, field of study, or style. What resonates with YOU? To study painting, and a great many other things, is to become a pupil of it far life. There is NO arrival. Each medium has its own pathand possibility of expression, but they all require a fluency translating Visual Language. lt's a path of fascinating human lineage, perseverance, passion, and perception. It did not start with us, and certainly will not end with us. Let's Begin! [FIN p 11 Ok]

 Visual language

There is great latitude for personal expression in representational painting, and especially painting In general, but good work of all genres starts with a fluency in the vocabulary of our sense of vision, or Visual Language. This language of translating from mind, photo, life, or sorne combination, onto a two dimensional surface, Is at lts best when marks mad e are meant to construe something of recognition in the intended viewer.

There is little need for agreement or adherence to Visual Language principies, if the work is completely abstract, or where view er readability is lntentionally exttinguished. However, the principies and elements of Visual Language start in the abstract, and only become the illusion of something through relationships, and the recognition of the viewer. lt crosses all painting mediums and genre boundaries, regard less of its effective use or knowledge of. This makes fluency absolutely essentfal for those working in any flat visual art form, even lf it's only knowing how, when, and why to push the rules. lt 's an understand ing of a way of see ing, that will enhance your life and work. Subject matter matters less, and relation shipsin the Visual Language Elements can become highly interesting.

Every mark made on a surface, start to finish, contains each of four elements of Visual Language. Over the course of the painting, they may combine, collide, mix, or contrast as they evolve toward the artist's intentions, but each and every mark contains Value, Shape, Edges, and Texture. Through these elements and their relation ships to one another, convincing illusions of physical form, lighting, and the precise point from which the arrangement is viewed, can be translated to the viewer.

Paint on a canvas can only reflect color and light, and is not, in itself, a source of light, there fore you must paint the effect  of  light  falling  upon your subject. An area on the canvas is only darker or lighter in relation to other areas around it. This darker and lighter relationship refers to the Visual Language element, Value. Color falis under the 'value' element, and can realiy complicate alimatter of things. Extremely subtle, and counter­ intuitive at times, color is first, a value. This keeps it conforming to the needs of the paintingas a priority over personalexpression desires which often break iliusions of realism through over abunda nt use.

The most complicated visual language element, Shape, in coliaboration with 'value,' plays an integral role in creating spacial depth. By adhering to linear perspective, the shapes of value are placed accurately on the canvas. The form in your scene, its orientation to the light source, and where this arrangement is being viewed from,is being viewed from,wili all contribute to theway shapes look. lf the translation is accurate, they wili also be readily apparent to the viewer. The 'Shape' chapter wili explain this intertwined element, andhopefuliy, shed light onthe contributing factors, asweli as the knowledge to fix problems.

Between these 'shapes' of'value: the visual language element Edges, helps achieve the illusion ofmaterial and form in space. The int ricacy of overlaps in the form, transitions, and stylistic poetry, are all expressions in the element Edges. Understading the tangible edges you see, versus those more interpretive called, intangible edges, will be covered in this chapter.

Texture refers mostly to the application of paint on the finished canvas, but can include a depiction of a texture in an area as weli. The brushwork, and physical quality of the paint surface, all fall under this element, and play a large role in defining your personal style, ali while enhancing the 'read' of thework.

Visual Language is quick to learn in theory, but canbe slow in rewarding one's practical application. Learning to see, and recognize the elements in your visual perception helps mentally organize the information. Only through knowledge and brush mileage, will your hand-eye coordination catch up with your vision. Going to museums, galleries, art openings, and studying master works of all styles and genres, will help increase your awareness, and broaden your personal style influences. Poetic vision, subject matter,c uriosity, and style, will naturally evolve with the maturation of your work and continued study.


Defined in terms of the Visual Language Element, Value is the actual lightness or darkness across a painting. Value can be divided most effectively, and most widely agreed upon, into ten segments, with one being the lightest, and ten being the darkest. In a painting, an object only appears illuminated through the use of shading. By relating one value to another on the canvas, by shading darker areas next to lighter areas, contrast is created. The intensity of the light source is primarily responsible for this contrast, and 'value' translates this. White to black, and the color in between, is all the visual spectrum we have to work with in painting, while in reality, the brightness factor goes far beyondwhite to l ev els of blinding, and dark recesses, are anear lmposslble emptinessto replicate. This narrower spectrum we're worklng with in translating ourvision, requires organizatlon, and that requiresbreaking down the Value element.

Value Families, Ranges, & Keys:

Learning to un-see the actual "things" (trees, rocks, a house, etc.) In your scene, in order to see the visual language elements and their relationships, Is something to be everpracticed. It will likely be a first, In many major breakthroughs while developing your painting eyes. One way to see the elements better, int his manner, and part1cularly with value, is to squint your eyes while looking at your subject. Squinting reduces the color and detail information in order to see only shapes of value, and other crucial Visual Language information.

Within a picture, similar values relate to each other, and can guide the eye across and through the picture plane. This reliable viewer experience is a great reason to consider the arrangement and placementof the shapes of va lue in the picture. These values that relate to one another are called value familles. In the largest sense, they can be divided into those areas receiving light, and  those areas not, or light and shadow families. Other families of value may reside within these major families having more to do with changes in the surface appearance of the form due to its color, luster, or surface plane orientation.

In the major light and shadow famillies, the lit side of things belong to the light family, while everything not receiving direct light, on the shad owe d slde of theform, as well as the r e sulting cast sh adows, belong to the shadow family. Often counter-intuilvely, lit sides of actual objects like trees, rocks, etc., have more in common, in value, to other lit objects than they do to the shadowed version of themselve . We might think we know what a thing looks like, until we try, from memory, to draw or paint it. Through careful observation, we learn more how to un-see things for what they're called, while exploring the translation essentials of the whole scene. We learn 'why', and 'how' a thing appears relative to other things and factors around it.

A value family may consist of many different objects or materials, and stay connected visually with othershapes of the same or similar value family. The sky, for example, generally light in value, will associate with the light family in the arrangement, or composition. The lit family may have a range in values from 1 to 3, while the shadow family stays within the 6 to 9 value range. By keeping these 'ranges' narrow in the value families, we can organize and design the complex visual information, enhance the 'read,' and truly orchestrate the viewer's experience.

Narrowing the range of values overall, would betochange the 'key' of a painting. A painting said to be in a 'high key' would be to say that it was painted in lightervalues, perhaps 1-4, or even 2-6 on the value scale. Value families are also keyed to specific, often narrow, value ranges. Keying value families must be mastered, and then keyed paintings become possible. Making use of the entire value spectrum is difficult enough in a painting, but exploring the keying of paintings opens another rabbit hole of limitless possibility in the ways of visual poetry.

Value Contrast Relationships:

In order to portray cont rast between light and shadow famil ies, a separation in value increments between the families must occur. This separation is the contrast relationship. The higher the cont rast relationship, the brighter the lightsource appears. For example, a range of values 1-3 exists in the lit family, while7-10 convey shadowfamily a reas. The range ofvalues from 4 to 6 is the contrastrelationship. Through widening the separation, or increasing the contrast, wealso narrow the range in one or both families. Say the 1-3 in the lit family becomes 1-2, extending the contrast relationship by one, with the shadow family now dominating by still havinga 7-10 value range to work within. This might be a backlight scenario where the light family contains much less physical real estate on the canvas than the shadow family. This scenario might seem brighter too because thelight source in a backlit scene shines more into the viewer's eyes. lt can be blinding to study outdoors, and requires a brimmed hat. Thecontrast relationship is a highly pliable attribute to the value element, also giving avenue to an enormous amount of exploration and poetry.

4 lnfluencing Factors of Value:

Often, there are several areas in a painting, like foreground, middle ground, background, each showing unique contrast relationships in the light and shadow families. Understanding the 'why' they are effecting the relationships of cont rastand color, is of obvious value. By compartmentalizing the causation of value, we can further understand and organize the various relationships in a painting.

1. Atmospheric Conditions:

A fog sweeping in can instantly take away contrast, hijacking the entire value range to a higher key. This effect could include looking through any visual filter, a veil, smoke, water, colored glass, etc. Most often, this factor is referred to in portraying distance with a contrast relationship meant to describe the amount of air particles between you and the subject. While painting outdoors, it's very rare to nothave atmospheric conditions effecting the appearance of the values in your subject. As form gets further away, it is being seen through more air. High humidity or air density increases the effect dramatically. This has the visual appearance of squeezing the contrast of light and shadow families intovisual appearance of squeezing the contrast of light and shadow families into higher and narrower keys, while also cooling and graying the color. This is called Atmospheric Perspective, and when grasped, is one of Value's greatest gifts to the poetry of the land, but could also show up in a smoky bar scene.

Distance, can be effectively portrayed by working in a high and cool key of values, say 1-3. This key could be narrower yet, depending on the needs of the painting and the intended effect. Even at great distance, light and shadow families can be described within this 'distance area' value range. lf their contrast relationship is squeezed even tighter, contrast between families may drop off into overlapping silhouettes of form. Objects remain distant in appearance byst aying in that higher key. The middle ground of a landscape may be values 1-3 in the lit family, while the shadow family is keyed in at 6-7. The foreground hasthe greatest contrast between the light and shadow families using once again,values 1-3 for lit stuff, and 7-10 for areas in the shadow. A deduction that thelit family is mostly 1-3 regardless of distance is also of great value. This is alsowhy the sky value, and great distance value keys will often be kindred with thelit family in the overall design or composition.

Another atmospheric condition is handled similarly, but usually tending towards darker keys. This occurs when looking th rough the surface of water, or some other transparent laver in front of vour subiect. In the painting above, the narrowrange of the value family containing the structure below the surface of thewater, is only 6-8. That contains theentire contrast relationship, and light and shadow families. lf you go darker anywhere, it will look weird because it won't be deep enough in that spot for the value to be that dark. lf you go lighter anywhere, the plane appears to be closer to the surface, or out of place entirely. Then there's a pretty big jump in value from the subsurface to the sun-baked debris and log build up along the shores of the outlet, avalue range of 1-3. Also note that thelight source is such that we get noglare on the water, allowing for such great visibility into the depths.

Keeping the multitude of value families organized often mea ns narrowing their range. This gives way for other families, or higher contrast possibilities. The range in a value family usually won't span more than three value incrementson the scale. Even at three, the integrity of the value family shape can begin to deteriorate, and a loss of contrast can occur, causing a look of indecisiveness, or ambiguity. lncredibly, two increments allows for subtlety and nuance inthe description of form in the light or shadow families, and can show slight gradations across larger masses. A careful consideration of the atmospheric conditions and organizing values accordingly, help maintain the viewer's readand interest. This helps them help you perpetuate your disciplined study through mutually agreed upon commercial trade.

2. The Color and lntensity of the Light Source:

A light source can be any color and intensity, and can dictate the appearance of things even more than an object's own surface characteristics. As intensity increases, the contrast relationship between light and shadow families also increases, the contrast relationship between light and shadow families also increases. This can be witnessed readily on a partly cloudy day. When the sun gets diffused by a passing cloud, the light and shadow information on the form vanishes. lighting is a giant consideration for painters, anda most inspirational muse. lt varíes greatly from complete control of one or many sources when indoors, to on-location where the weather plays a large roll in the lighting.

Outdoors, the sun is often the main source of light, and it's bright. lt Is considered a warm source most times . Early morning and late in the day, due to lower angles in the sky, the lit planes on the formtend to appear especially warm as the sunlight is fíltered through additional atmosphere. The sun's bright nessand color can be effected to various degrees, by clouds, smoke, rain or other atmospheric fílters. A fílter o fany kind lessens brightness of the light source, so the contrast is lessened between value families as well.

3. Local Color & Luster:

lndoors, still l ife, or model arrangements are much more controlled In terms of the lighting. Endless variations of color and lntensity arepossible with the right equipment and objects. Being aware of how the color and intensity of the light source interacts with the actual colorand luster of the form in the scene, becomes important in how and why we see value the way we do. Color is Value first, and falls somewhere on the value scale, but contains its own interesting characteristics (all of w hich we'll getinto at the end of this chapter). This attribute,'local color,' is the outer most visible color of the form. lt is most apparent when the lighting is diffused, like overcast skles, or any uniform ambient light. It will show up in a broader value range in the shadow family during a 'backlit' scene, and in the light family during a 'front lit' scene.

There is an additive sense to how lighting interacts with local color. A warmer source will add warmer-ness to the local color of the form. A blue form, say, receiving warm light (yellows, oranges,bright greens, bright reds, light browns) may appear more green-ish. A graying ofthe blue intensity will occuras warmth mixes with blue or cool. The intensity of the blue of the sky will have an ambientlight effect on the cast shadows outdoors. The reddish tones in the Southwest mix with the blue sky's a mbient light creating purp les In the shadows.

The luster characteristic re fers to the reflectlvlty or the appar ent shininess of  the form . The less luster, or more matte the surface, the more the form appears as it s own local color. When the luster is higher, the surface r eflects more of itssurroundings. This can be seen readily in comparing the surface of water to rocks along a bank, or the chrome of a bumper next to a rusted fender of an old truck.When you look ata mirror, the highest possible luster, its appearance    changes with your movement. The surface is continually updating your viewpoint to anything within it, and your, collective soope, and none of its local color.

4. The light Source, the Form, and the Viewpoint (all at once):

The fourth factor in the appearance of Value is based on the orientation of the form's outer planes to the light source, and the point from which the arrangement is witnessed, the Viewpoint. lt is the 'keystone' in the great archway of representational painting, the Anatomy of Light and Form, plus the Viewpoint, and will be referenced in nea rly ali works depicting light and shadow.

The lit Planes and the Shadow Planes:
When a source of light, intense enough to cast shadows, meets a simple form, there are two main value families created, the light, and the shadow. This system has recognizable planar events which reliably occur regardless of surface characteristics. The 'Anatomy of Light and Form' is the reason we learn to separate value into light and shadow families, but the viewpoint also plays an integral role in the appearance of this interplay. As it changes, all the Contrast Relationships in Value also adjust, even while the format1on of the light and form may stay constant. The translation from 30 to 20 fully integrates t his information, and nearly every light and shadow arrangement will show many, if not all, of these events within the two main Light and Shadow Families.

The structure of the light and shadow information stays the same as you walk around it, as shown in positlons a-h, above left. Front-lit situatlons, where the source of light seems to come from behind you or over your shoulder, will typically have more light family a rea on the canvas, than the typically have more light family a rea on the canvas, than theshadow family. A broader range of values will be apparentin the light value family, therefore more range in that familycan justifiably be used to describe it. The shadow family,is smaller in size, and pushed to a darker key in order topreserve the cont rast. Much of the color information islost, in this case, and doesn't need as much value range. Conversely, wit h a backlit viewpoint, where shadow familytends to domínate the picture real estate, greater latitude inthe value range for t his fa mily makes sense. Here again, inorder to preserve cont rast, the light family is pushed higherIn key, and again, losing much of the color informatlon. Bothof these design motifs require a sound understanding of theplanar orientations in the form relative t o the light source, and a keen ability to adjust the keys, ranges, and cont rastrelationships of the main value families.

The sphere is a convex shape and there are a lot of concaveshapes in nature and in form of all kinds, but keep in mind,it's the actual planar orientation to the light source that is important, when reading the form. Reliably, and predictably a sphere, underlllumination, illustrates this pattern of events better than any other form. Knowing this anatomy of planar events well, and being able to adapt thesenaturally occurring patterns to the infinite interaction possibilities in the mind, or the world around you, is paramount to representation.

1. Lit Planes:

Comprised of all the planes of the form that receive direct light from the mainsource in the scene, are deemed the Lit Planes. There are three sub categories ofnote to the painter, in this a rea on the form. In the case of viewpoint variation,as seen lower left, this pla nar information can be squeezed, or st retched, compressed or exaggerated.

1a. Specular Highlight Planes:

Being the only dynamic event, the specular highlight is a refraction that will move on the form as you change your viewpoint. This is because it tracks across the planes of the form and bounces off the surface where the angle is right based on a viewpoint. Each unique viewpoint will witness the specular highlight differently. In the main diagramleft, viewpoints l aA-laE, illustrate the dynamism ofthe specular highlight. Where the light (white lines) isbouncing off the surface of the sphere, is where thespecular highlight would appear on the sphere, to aviewer in that position.

(1a. continued) The Specular Highlight can be blinding, and is the lightest value in most scenes unless the actual primary source of light also falls within the picture. This event becomes more apparent as the luster of the material increases (think of the sun blinging off of a chrome bumper or body of water). Other planes, even facing more toward the light source, can be darker in value in comparison to the specular highlight. Looking for the specular highlight on unlikely matte or rough surfaces can aid in the illusion of a third dimension immediately.

1b. Acute Planes:
These planes are receiving the most direct light from the light source. The appearance of the local color/luster existing on these planes of the form are going to be highly effected by the color and intensity of the light source. At times, the entire local color, and surface characteristics can get absorbed by the light source's intensity. As the planes angle away from the light source, they will take on more and more of their local characteristícs.

1c. Long light Planes:
On the form, these planes are receiving light at much less of a direct angle. Stretching the limit of the light family value range, these planes appear slightly darker in value, and are closest in value to the local color of the form. Anything protruding from the surface here, casts longer shadows across these planes. Longer still, as the planes of the form angle more and more away from the light source. These are the most difficult and misunderstood planes in any arrangement. lt's why sunsets are so amazing and challenging. In that experience, we're existíng on the Long light Plane of Earth, and looking around at the form and lighting from that viewpoint.

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