Sunday, May 4, 2014

Musings about Value, Flat & Glowing, Figure Ground....

I've done very little since the workshop, of course.  A friend and classmate wrote to ask for my thoughts on Nancy Crow's Flat & Glowin concept, and what started out to be an answer to her e-mail turned into a miniature dissertation, so I decided it made a better blog post than e-mail!

I decided when unpacking and reorganizing my fabric that I would sort it by value instead of color.  I didn't really want to, because I just love to see those pretty bins full of pinks, blues, etc.  It's not really as visually appealing sorted by value.  It was easy to pull out the very lights,  and the very darks, but everything else is sort of a mish-mash.  Did I ever give you my blog website?  I don't really post a lot on there, it's more a record-keeping function for myself and anyone who might be interested.  Here are some pictures of the value experiment: 

What we are supposed to know or do with value?  I know contrast is very important - more important than color (hue) itself.  You can have a beautiful design, but if all the colors are middle values it just mushes together and can't be seen or perceived.  Many of Nancy's exercises start with black and white first.  This way we focus on composition and can't mess up things using value.  Then once you have a composition you like you proceed to convert it to colors.  That's where I usually fail.  She tried to feed us a method for doing this in the final exercise where one side was supposed to be the value reverse of the other side.  If everything was to "middle-ish" the two sides would look the same...  Yet limiting your value range to something less than the full black/white spectrum can be very powerful.  I learned in my color class that light values are defined as "high value" and dark as "low value."  This seemed a little bit backward to me, but... I have collected on a Pinterest board many examples of "High Value" art.  I really like the subtlety of some of these pieces.

I also have a "secret" Pinterst board where I collect examples of quilts or art that just look Bad.  Not to be mean (that's why it's secret - I'd never want the artist to know I'd singled them out) just to make myself think about what makes it bad.  The answer is frequently no contrast.  So a range of values is important, allowing you to discern one figure or shape from another when you look at the overall composition.  Value also plays a role in figure ground as light values should naturally come forward and darks recede.  Yet when I tried a direct reversal, in this example, the figures seemed to come forward in both versions.  Maybe because they are lines, thin in relation to the space around them?  

 I've also been working on figure/ground, in my own weird way. I am not at all sure that I'm interpreting that concept in the same way she does, and I tend to drift off down various sidetracks.  But in my understanding, at its most simple, it is just "What is the object?" and "What is the background?"  Some of the realistic work she referred to, like Degas' ballerinas, were "just" figures and grounds.  I think what is great about them is the beauty of the shapes of the figures and grounds.  But then there seems to be another level, that when I was in school was called "figure/ground reversal."  The classic example is the profile/vase image.
I don't know if for sure if this reversal thing is something Nancy necessarily wants us to aim for.  Sometimes it seems so. Other times I think she says that is not necessary.  If the goal of art is to engage the viewer, then it is desirable to keeping them looking and thinking while their brain tries to decide which way is “right.”    In some of my sketches or studies I played with this, mostly just geometric forms with white backgrounds.  It is not hard to get shapes that you can read either way, but then to also make them beautiful, elegant shapes or "figures," as Nancy prefers to call them, is a little harder.
White shapes or purple shapes?

I have also made it one of my goals to "work on" flat and glowing.  But exactly how is a big mystery, so I have not done anything. Maybe writing about it will help me think about it...
The definition seems to change with Nancy's mood.  When we were at the start of those 10%/90% exercises, she seemed to be saying that you should pick the absolute dullest color you could find, and then she insisted that everything was glowing in comparison, and had to be thrown out of the 10% column.  Yet when we got to the review, she said, "I never told you that it had to be all one color!"  But she essentially did tell us that, because she told us that in any two pairs of colors one would be more glowing and one would be more flat, and to get rid of the glowing one.  
So what IS flat/glowing?  In past classes she called it warm/cool which totally confused everyone since the rest of the art world uses that to apply to red-orange-yellow vs. blue-violet-green.  At another point it was called dull/glowing I think.  I've tried to study color theory a few times, and every article I read seems to have different ways of defining the properties of color.  Intensity, luminosity, saturation, brightness, tints, shades, etc. etc.  I can get overwhelmed and bored with this pretty quickly.  What I really think “flat & glowing” means, mostly, is where a color or fabric is on the spectrum from pure color to gray.   Or how much muddiness of any color has been added, via black/white/gray/brown.  

In the 2012 class, she said something to me that stuck - "Why do you pick such flat colors."  I thought I was picking sophisticated colors, so that helped me see how she was interpreting flat.  And I realized it was true, my sophisticated colors were all equally muddy and nothing jumped out.  So I'm working on using a range of bright to dull, as I refer to define it.  

That's enough musing for today, it's raining so I'm going to the studio!

EDIT:  Here are a few pictures from my Flat/Glowing exercise in progress:

Of course my composition was too complicated.

This version was not flat enough to start.

I liked the rotational feel of the triangles, Nancy said she felt like she was being stabbed by daggers!


  1. very interesting reflections on the workshop and what Nancy means by her idiosyncratic classifications of color! I think every one of her students has had similar problems of nomenclature. I finally decided to classify colors as "aggressive" and "passive."

    will you tell us more about the 90/10% exercises? what were you supposed to do?

    1. Passive/Aggressive, I love that idea Kathy!
      In the 90/10 exercise we were given a format - there were to be ten vertically oriented segments, I think they were about 15 x 40 (?). Five across the top, five more in a second row. They were to start on the upper left, with 90% flat 10% glowing, then 80/20, 70/30, 60/40, 50/50.
      The lower half started with 50/50 and onward until the lower left was 90% glowing. I'll add a few shots of my incomplete exercise to the blog post.

  2. Sounds like we are both in about same place! Last summer I organized all my Kona cottons by value ( after a Nancy workshop. I do think it has made it easier to work, and I will likely keep it this way. I think I learned a lot in the sorting process alone. I still struggle with figure/ground and the flat/glowing (which I think of as "dead" and "alive."

    1. Maria, your neatly organized shelves are beautiful! I see some similarities - yellow drops out after the first three groups, orange starts about the same place. The jury's still out for me, but I'm going to give this a try. Thanks for reading!