Exploring Tonalism

I’m getting back to my studio now, spending a little time here each morning, and I’m looking forward to creating art once again. Being away from the studio for a few days has helped me see even more than before how much art has become part of my life. It is part of who I am now.

I mentioned in a previous post that even while I was in the hospital, I still found ways to be creative, both with graphite drawing and with reading about art. One article in particular caught my interest. It was written by artist Michelle Wooderson and detailed her 31-day landscape painting project. Over the course of a month, she studied works by several of her favorite artists, then sought to create works of her own — on index cards.

It sounds a bit crazy, doesn’t it? Oil painting on index cards? Actually, I don’t think her paintings were done on index cards. From the illustrations she provided in the article, it appears that what she used were actually “index card dividers” — each with a numbered tab. She refers to them as “vintage index cards”, but frankly, I think she’s a bit confused on that point. Dividers are a bit sturdier, made from manila, and that’s what I’ll be using for my version of the project.

My current interest in tonalism remains strong, and as autumn slowly slips into winter, what more perfect time to explore lights and shadows in landscape painting? Accordingly, I have chosen three tonalist artists whose work I want to study and emulate. Those artists are:

  • George Inness
  • Charles Warren Eaton
  • Dwight Tryon

In order to succeed with a project like this, it’s important, I think, to be clear in intention and objective. What am I hoping to accomplish? How do I plan to do this?

At the most basic level, of course, the purpose behind this project is to improve my abilities as a landscape artist. I’m excited at the thought of producing 31 small paintings. We all know that painting every day is a sure way to improve our skills.

Along with improvement in my abilities, I want to learn more about tonalism and how to use it as part of my personal art style. And while we’ve all heard that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, I don’t plan to copy the paintings I’ve chosen to study. Instead, I want to examine them closely, gain an understanding of the artist’s techniques, look at the colors, and study the lights and shadows. I want to learn more, as well, about creating mood and atmosphere in my landscape paintings.

So, exactly what is tonalism? This is the first question I’ve had to answer as I get ready to begin this fun month-long project. Here’s a good definition I found from The Principle Gallery:

‘Tonalism’ is the name that was eventually given to the art movement popularized in the late 1800’s by American  landscape painters. Essentially, Tonalism is a way of painting landscapes that is characterized by soft, blurred lines, gentle use of colors in the mid-range of tones and values, and an elegantly simple composition. For many Tonalist painters, the use of this style was inspired by the philosophers and Transcendentalist ideas popular in America at the time Tonalism began. By painting a landscape in this certain way, artists sought to transform the portrayal of a landscape into something that might elicit a spirit of contemplation and introspection from the viewer, turning it into a tranquil and meditative device. An early member of the Tonalist movement, Birge Harrison, once described the objective to his students as that of striving for the ‘big vision-the power to see and to render the whole of a given scene, rather than to paint a still-life picture of its component parts; the power to paint the atmosphere that surrounds the objects rather than the objects themselves; the power, in one word, to give the mood of a motive rather than the scientific statement of the trees and rocks and fields and mountains that make up the elements.’

I’m currently reading more about tonalism and the different artists who embraced the style, and I’m reading about specific ideas and techniques these artists used. I’m excited to begin taking all that I’m learning and applying it to my own little landscape paintings.

Each day I’ll begin, as Michelle Wooderson did, by reading and studying specific art works. I’ll then use an index card to make a value sketch, a quick drawing that’s similar to the painting I’m studying. I’ll make notes of different features and characteristics, and I’ll give thought to the moods the painting evokes. Then, I’ll go to work on my own landscape, using oil paints on a gessoed manila card.

My first day’s project involves a painting by George Inness. It’s titled Autumn, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this work. In some ways it’s a bit different from most tonalist paintings, in that it’s filled with rich, warm, vibrant colors. Most tonalists worked with dark neutral colors, specifically blues and grays.

What emotions does this painting hold for you?

“Autumn” by George Inness

So, wish me luck as I set out to borrow a few ideas from George and his friends. I want to have fun playing with splotches of light, creating different moods, working with different color schemes, and learning about the techniques of tonalism.

Now it’s time for me to do a bit more reading before I settle down at my easel and begin to paint.

24 Comments

    1. I think it will be a good project for me. It’s simple. It’s not especially time consuming. It focuses on things I’m interested in — landscape painting, tonalism, and developing skills in both graphite drawing and oil paintings. I’m looking forward to learning a lot from the project.

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  1. Hi Judith, I looked at the works of the three artists you’ve chosen. To my highly inexperienced, untrained eyes their works look similar in some respects, which hopefully doesn’t surprise you. It’s an interesting project you are embarking upon. I hope you will share some of your works, I look forward to following you on your journey.

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    1. Yes, all three artists share a similar style, and I hope to learn a lot from studying their works. I want to learn about their lives, too, since their spiritual beliefs had an impact on how they painted. It will be an interesting little project, and I will definitely be sharing it on the blog in coming weeks.

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  2. when I look at this painting it opens my eyes to the natural beauty of early fall as the leaves slowly change colours. For me this is the best part of fall. The light flows easily through the trees and the ground cover and the animals.

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      1. I love art that exposes our soul to the most beautiful scenes imaginable. And then past that point where we are asked to see for ourselves. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and art has this all !!

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      2. Yes, exactly! I love learning about famous artists and their thoughts and feelings about art. It is inspiring to read about how they hoped to express profoundly spiritual ideas through their art.

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      3. Yes, Judith. I often look at some of the master pieces they old original artists left behind for us. They hold such wonderous beauty and stories hidden deep inside each of them. The brsuh strokes give everything away before we have the complete story built.

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      4. It’s been well over a year since I visited an art gallery — other than online visits. I’ve enjoyed “virtual visits” to famous museums, but there are so many places I want to visit — for real!

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      5. I’m making a list of museums I want to visit and/or revisit. The Nelson-Atkins here in Kansas City, of course (we’re about 40 miles away), and the Kemper Galleries in St. Joseph and in St. Louis, plus the Chicago Art Institute, and so many more! I’m hoping to spend time traveling when summer comes.

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      6. Those museums sound inticing to me. There is a new museum in the provincial capital in Edmonton. It is called the Royal Alberta Museum. They host some of the most incredible exhibits from around the world at times.

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      7. That would be a lovely place to visit, I’m sure! Since I’m also very interested in history, I enjoy museums of all sorts, not just art. There is so much to see and learn!

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