The New Tone in Paintings: Neo Tonalism

June in our area has some gorgeous evenings for the monthly Art Hop that are balmy with a possible breeze, and by evening the afternoon rains have usually cleared. And yet, our May 19 Art Hop in Historic Monument saw rain snow, sleet, fog and finally sun in that 5-8pm time slot! Still, some loyal art lovers came out and made the rounds to kick off the local art event. Later, when the sun came out, one would never know we’d had such a weather-filled day.

I was out and about, too, but I admit I ventured into town after the sky brightened. The afternoon’s thick fog made the whole town seem surreal, moody and mysterious like a tonal painting.

The moody character of the late 19th to early 20th century painting known as Tonalism is seeing a comeback recently among artists and especially art collectors. Instead of great detail, the artists work more with the general mood and tones of their scene, and using a very limited palette of mostly earth colors. These atmospheric paintings use soft edges that evoke feelings. Perhaps it was a result of the bleak post Civil War tenor that influenced the movement’s minimal hues. Prior to that era, the full spectrum, dramatic and detailed luminist paintings dominated painting in the U.S. with its grand scenes of the power of nature and light.

Tonalist paintings are not of a particular place, or even done at the place, but are more of an imagined locale for the subject of the painting which is primarily the mood and feeling expressed. Tonalsm is the opposite of Impressionism, which uses the brilliant full specturm instead of a limited use of hues. Today’s plein air artists seem to use a combination of the tonality of that limited palette and the generalized, rough brush strokes, almost as if just an underpainting, and then add touches of the brilliant colors they see outdoors.

When tubes for paint colors became available, artists went out into nature, carting their materials on their backs or with a friend’s help, and painted on the spot, having to return a number of times at the same time of day since the fugitive sunlight changed the view drastically as it moved past the scenes. These days, with our renewed interest in natural habitats and conservation, the love of natural scenes is again a favorite. Neo tonalism is the moniker for the current variation on the theme, but we do see hints of a bit more color in them.


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  1. Trackback: Treating the Tonal | Essential Knowledge

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