Friday, October 29, 2010


This post is devoted to a style of painting known as Tonalism, that has had a large influence on my approach to making landscapes. The name refers to the use of a simple unifying color, or tone throughout a painting to create a sense of mood. Common subjects include twilight, sunsets, moonrises, nocturnes, and misty atmospheres.

The tonalist style was uniquely American, beginning in the mid to late 19th century as an outgrowth of the French Barbizon school of traditional landscape painting. The period signifies the emergence of the United States on the world stage, a country that was still very young at the time and had not matured artistically. The style was short lived, lasting only a few decades, and was notably eclipsed in popularity by Impressionism.

What has always appealed to me about tonalism are its soft and meditative qualities. Pictures made in the style have a subtle sense of mystery that draws in the viewer.

Probably one of the most famous painters associated with the style was George Inness. His early work was fairly tight, but as time went on, he began to develop a looser more atmospheric style, focused on conveying mood.

George Inness, Summer Landscape

George Inness, Sunset on the Passaic

He is one of the most expressive painters of sky that I have seen, particularly his ability to render the powerful fury of an approaching storm.

George Inness, √Čtretat

The general softness of tonalism makes it well suited to oil painting. Only one artist in my experience, Edward Steichen, was able to capture the same qualities in other media. His career began as a oil painter, but he quickly moved on to photography. Steichen sought to merge the experience of both media together. By experimenting with technique and highly modifying his photos, he was able to create great tonal photographs.

Edward Steichen, The Pond—Moonlight

Another big name was James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Whistler was influenced in his mature years, by the minimalist art of Japanese prints. He created many innovative works, his most famous being a serious of Nocturnes.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold

There are many other fine examples of this style of art, even some are contemporary. I plan is to incorporate elements of the style in my own work as well.

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