R. Swain Gifford from artrenewal.org
I received a question some time ago about tonalism. The writer wanted to know about the color used by tonalist painters and whether they used black.
I have written a comparison of tonalism and luminism, here is a link to that from the archives. There are also some nice baby goats in that one.
I am not myself a tonalist painter but I have experimented with the ideas a little. There is at least one very fine tonalist painter who reads this blog. She may log in and explain the ideas better than I can, or maybe tell me I have it all wrong.
Tonalism is a historical approach to painting that involves systematically presenting the landscape permeated by a dominant tone and in a restricted color scheme. Often, at least historically, these painters worked mostly in earth colors so black would have been a common color on their palettes. The tonalist painting above undoubtedly contains black. For a painter who is restricting his dominant color to a single tone, black is a handy thing to have, it adds another pigment without adding another color. Grays can be laced into a tonalist painting without losing the look.There are tonalist painters today who favor chromatic colors. So what pigments are used is secondary to the logic with which they are arrayed.
Edgar Payne while not a straight up tonalist painter was influenced by those ideas and wrote of the danger of mechanically adding the same color into every pigment on your palette. That is a way that some painters have arrived at a tonalist look. He felt it destroyed the beauty of your color. However he did offer a pointer for obtaining tonalist effects. It is simple and straightforward, an elegant idea. Payne suggested that in order to keep a painting dominated by a single tone all that was required was to remove its compliment ( or opposite) from your palette. In other words if you are doing a tonalist painting based on an ochre yellow, you want to avoid the use of purple.
Often tonalist paintings are backlit by sunsets or failing light and are in dark tones set against that light. Other tonalist schemes weave a single color through a painting like the warp strings of a tapestry. Another way to think about this is to imagine an instrument with a drone string, like a dulcimer. Dulcimers have several strings, one of which is played open so that it always sounds as part of any chord that is played.
Tonalism is sort of the opposite of impressionism which is made up of the transcribed mosaic of the observed notes of nature before the artist. Therefore impressionist color is usually full spectrum rather than restricted to a single group of hues.
Usually the goal of tonalist painting is the production of a mood in a painting rather than the representation of any actual place. Usually they are done in the studio and as often as not the landscape is no real place but an idealized design. Historically tonalism was a reaction against the view painting of the mid 19th century which so often portrayed "Oh my God" locations. Because of that, they were often of simple and universal scenes. The color, design and the mood were the subject rather than a unique and spectacular location. The painting above is an example of that.