Friday, April 23, 2010

Making a tonalist painting

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.

27 comments:

willek said...

Never saw this all wrapped up so nicely before, Stape. Just a terrific post. I can't wait to try these things on a genre I have been thinking about for a long time. Of course, I need to see if the young lady you mentioned agrees with your assessment.

mariandioguardi.com said...

It might surprise to readers to find out that I wanted to be a tonalist painter when I started painting. I love and admire good tonalist work. It's always beautiful,refined and restrained and might I add "tastefull". Just goes to shows that if you recognize who you are as a painter you will you paint what you are. And tonalism wasn't me.Alas.

Mary Byrom said...

Just catching up - Nice series of posts Stapleton! Love the "taste" one.
A Shattuck link- connect the dots... I've had a large photo of Townes Van Zandt in my studio for the past several months. He was the real thing.

Mary Byrom said...

Marian, maybe you & tonalism not now, stuff changes. I was an abstract painter and sculptor for many years - now I paint realism and that keeps changing...who I am as a painter right now is not who I am as a painter next year. The very best artists are always students. (I think I first heard this from Richard Schmid.)

Jen said...

This is one of the most concise and beautifully explained description of Tonalism that I've run across. Sure love your blog, Stape!

don hatfield said...

I actually read your tonalism piece and found it very helpful. You are so smart and articulate, and you have the paintings to back it up--you have my ear, brother--Hatfield

Jeremy Elder said...

Stape, I must agree with everyone's comments - very well put. You summarized this in a very understandable way. Now I'm going back to read your old post on luminism.

Like a good book, I never get tired of re-reading your blog.

Jeremy Elder said...

By the way, James Gurney has an interesting color wheel masking technique that achieves a similar result if you create a mask with a dominant tone:

http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2008/02/from-mask-to-palette.html

sharprm said...

Does the term luminism apply to ww2 aircraft paintings? I really like the aircraft paintings where they conceal the strokes and are very realistic.

Gregory Becker said...

Good post I want to experiment with the idea you presented here.

Deborah Paris said...

A wonderful, even poetic description, Stape. If you were referring to me in your post (and I hope so), thanks for the shout out. And to willek too, since the only person who refers to me as a "young lady" anymore is the 85 year old guy down at the hardware store in town.

Anything I might say would be by way of elaboration rather than correction. Your insight that it is about how the color is used rather than which ones is so true. I find that if I pick a dominant hue and vary it by temperature, value and intensity, I get the best result.

I have always had black on my palette even in my former life as an impressionist high key painter, but only for mixing greens. Now, I find it very handy to knock back a color without having to resort to the complement which might shift the temperature in an undesirable direction. And Gamblin chromatic black is wonderful for nocturnes!

You are again right on point with the motivation to move away from grand, Sublime scenes (Hudson River School) to more intimate corners of nature, which inspire more reflective mood and emotion. In my case, although I don't paint portraits of individual places, I think it would be fair to say that most of the body of work I have created over the last few years, is based on real places (within a mile or so around my home and studio)-trees, fields, streams, ponds. Elements are restated, reorganized, woven together, themes repeated and refined. Not so much idealized as intensified and distilled.

Deborah Paris said...

Oh, and Marian- you are always welcome over here " on the dark side" :)

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I like that idea of letting a particular hue dominate by removing it's compliment. I suppose I knew this instinctively, but it seems like a brilliant idea when it is put down in words.
While I love tonalism, I would have to say I like color too much to think about putting browns or black on the palette. The more I paint though the more controlled and subtle that color gets.
Thanks again.

willek said...

Thanks,Deborah for your comments. Very enlightning and interesting.
I am really caught up in limited palletts. David Lussier
(http://pleinairpair.blogspot.com/ )Has an explanation of a few palletts he uses based on those used by Bellows and Henri. Very interesting. We have been taught to put those complements in the shadows but if it is not on the pallett, we are forced to make a bias toward the light, which in certain circumstances washes over everything...true?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Willek:
Thank you.
.......Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Marian:
I somehow can't imagine you as dark and brooding. Too happy.
.........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Mary:
Townes is unknown to the students at the school now. I worked to remedy that.
.................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Mary:
You become a student for life when you pick up the brush.
...........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jen:
Thank you. I am not concise in real life.
.........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Don:
Thank you. Coming from you that is a big pat on the back. Brother.
......................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeremy:
It is funny which posts people find appealing.
................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeremy:
I read his blog every day. I try not to copy it, but it is full of so many great ideas.He has been an inspiration to me.
...............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

sharprm:
I don't know, it might. I guess I would have to see the painting in question.Rivets make me sneeze.
..................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Deborah:
Who else would it be? Thanks for the added input.
........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Gregory:
You do work that could easily be steered in that direction.
.......Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Richard ;
I too love tonalism but I just do the same old thing anyway. I am hoping to get real good at it.
..........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Willek:
In a backlit picture thats not such a problem.
...............Stape