Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Tonalism and Nocturnes

Night Sky, mixed media, (gouache, charcoal, pastel, acrylic) 26 1/2 x 12 1/2
Check this piece out in a virtual frame on my website HERE

There is an allure to painting nocturnes, especially if you like to work in monochrome or in a tonalist palette. There's something endlessly fascinating in working with subtle variations, where one flick of an eraser, one additional stroke of a pastel or one more glaze of paint richly, and delicately changes the look of an area, moving it one step closer to that much sought after perfect harmony and balance so desirable in a quiet, poetic painting.

Of course not all nocturnes are quiet like this. Van Gogh's nocturnes are filled with intense, even burning color...Van Gogh wrote It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.”

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh 

Night Cafe, Vincent van Gogh

James Abbot McNeill Whistler had a different take on nocturnes, which he was famous for....

Nocturne in Gray and Gold, Westminster Bridge, James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket, James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Though Van Gogh is one of my favorite painters of all time, my own piece above owes more to the Whistler above than to Van Gogh. 

One more Whistler, who unlike Van Gogh's heavy impasto paintings thought painting should be more like "breath on glass"

Nocturne in Gray and Gold, Chelsea Snow,  James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Here's another take on a nocturne that is tonalist, more subdued than Van Gogh's, but with rich color....

 Birge Harrison, Soaring Clouds

Another take on a nocturne which includes a textural element.

 Moonlit Lake, Ralph Albert Blakelock

Here's  a nocturne by a woman artist (finally!)

 Cornfield Point, Matilda Browne (1869-1947)

With the exception of Van Gogh who is categorized as a post-impressionist, all these painters are tonalists, and were painting in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries.

Description of the Tonalist Painting Style and Technique

Tonalism is rooted in the French Barbizon movement, which emphasized atmosphere and shadow. The Tonalist style employs a distinctive technique by the use of color's middle values as opposed to stronger contrast and high chroma. Resulting in a understated and compelling overall effect. The tonalist subject matter is never entirely apparent; their is no effort to communicate a message or narrate a story. Instead of relating a story, each sensitively chosen color, composition, and line is arranged to create an intriguing visual poem. 

The interiors of tonalist paintings are generally elegant and sparsely decorated, tonally uniform, simplified and indistinct; the figures are usually presented alone in silent contemplation. Landscapes are typically luscious and luminous with evocative atmospheric effects featuring misty backgrounds illuminated by moonlight. Tonalists painters were drawn to both the natural and spiritual realms. They sought to awaken the viewers consciousness by shrouding the subject in a misty indistinct veil of emotionalism. The palette is minimal, characterized by warm hues of brown, soft greens, gauzy yellows and muted grays. Preferred themes were evocative moonlight nights and poetic, vaporous landscapes. Tonalist painters seemed to favored unconscious states and psychological experiences over reality. Read more HERE

Tonalism even influenced photography.....

 Edward Steichen, Woods Shadow, 1899

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Steichen’s twilight and moonlight photographs of the late 1890s were deeply influenced by the atmospheric effects of Whistler’s London nocturnes and by the landscapes of the American Tonalist George Innes. In 1901 Steichen wrote of the visual magic of the woods at dusk: “What a beautiful hour of the day is that of the twilight when things disappear and seem to melt into each other, and this great feeling of peace overshadows all.”

1 comment:

Joan Cole said...

Interesting post, Jan. I especially was taken by the Steichen photo you used. It reminds me of his year-long series of photos of his beloved shadblow tree across the pond from his home in West Redding, Connecticut. But those were in the 1970's, long after "Woods Shadow, 1899" was taken.