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The Quality of Color | A Tonalist Approach

Many painters are drawn to color like bees to honey. The kaleidoscopic array of intense color choices available today is due in large part to the introduction of new organic pigments, such as Anthraquinone, Dioxazine, Hansa, Napthol, Phthalo and Quinacridone. These pigments are capable of retaining a high chromatic intensity across a range of value gradations. The allure of color can be a strong one and whenever I find myself becoming too seduced by its charms, I am reminded of a phrase I first heard from pastel master Duane Wakeham: “

The quality of color within a painting is not due to the quantity of color.” Duane’s concern is that pastel artists must learn to select and use color wisely. As the range of colors has expanded, the artists’ ability to get caught up in technique and subject matter has overshadowed the importance of composition and use of color. In his words, “Color has to hold its place in space.” A green in the foreground will need to appear different when represented in the background. Just saying green is not enough. An artist needs to be sensitive to how cool, warm and grayed a color becomes depending upon its location.

Lessons From Corot: Duane’s thoughts remind me of two comments the French master Jean-Baptiste Corot made in the mid 1800s:

  • “What there is to see in painting, or rather what I am looking for, is the form, the whole, the value of the tones …That is why for me the color comes after, because I love more than anything else the overall effect, the harmony of the tones, while color gives you a kind of shock that I don’t like. Perhaps it is the excess of this principle that makes people say I have leaden tones.”
  • “The most important things in a painting are form and value. Color comes last—like a friend you welcome.”

Corot’s effects helped form the French Barbizon style of landscape painting and influenced American artists in the 1880s to begin emphasizing the overall tone of colored atmosphere, creating the Tonalism movement of painting. George Inness and James McNeill Whistler were leading artists associated with the movement who often relied upon neutral hues of gray, brown or blue to dominate their compositions. It wasn’t that color was lacking in their works; instead, as Duane referenced, it was its “place in space” that was of utmost importance.

Harnessing Color With Neutrals: One way that I have helped myself as a pastelist to achieve a degree of tonalism in my paintings is by keeping an assortment of colored grayed pastels at hand’s reach. I refer to these as “neutrals” and they represent the spectrum of the color wheel in a range of value gradations. I attempted to make a selection from this neutral section before giving into the temptations of the mouth-watering pure colored sticks. Even when a painting is to be dominated by intense color choices, a little neutral tone will do its part to add a sense of overall color harmony. It isn’t that color has to be denied, it just has to be harnessed.

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