S25 Tonalism

The aim of this sprint is to explore what a more tonalist approach to paintings offers for my folk horror thematic. This sprint dovetails with the completion of work for S24. My decision to explore tonalism as a way forwards is based on what emerged from S24 – a need to build more atmosphere and mystery into the painting, moving away from narrative cues towards something where the air itself is working towards the creation of mystery and ambiguity.

Tonalism has its roots in the 1880s and the Barbizon school where mood and shadow become the focus of interest. Tonalism lends itself to the allegorical, to what is called in literary theory – the pathetic fallacy (the landscape reflecting a character’s mood or predicament – often also a technique used within cinema). Key figures include Whistler, George Inness, John Atinkson Grimshaw, Albert Pinkham Ryder. Echoes of earlier artists also apparent in some respects include Samuel Palmer, Turner and in terms of the creation of a gauzy surface, Constable’s sketches, an aspect taken up by later artists such as James Morrison – although in both these cases a higher key approach to light value is apparent.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens (1888–1891), oil on canvas, 20 x 20.50 in. National Gallery of ArtWashington, DC
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Autumn Morning – ‘Grimmy’ recognised by Whistler as the inventor of the Nocturne. Keynote use of yellow often dragged over the dark underpainting. https://drawpaintacademy.com/john-atkinson-grimshaw/
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Evening on the Pier. Green moonlight (cool) v. warm yellow/orange of man-made light
James Abbott McNeill WhistlerNocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, 1874
James Whistler, Nocturne Trafalgar Square Chelsea Snow 1876
Stuart Davies ‘Evening Tones’ 18″x24″ c2020
fishing nets, catterline by james morrison
James Morrison, Fishing Nets Catterline. 1960. 24 x 59.8 in
James Morrison. Bare tree and open fields signed and dated 12.XI.1982, oil on board, 21 x 37cm (8 1/4 x 14 9/16in).

The key features of ‘tonalism’ include: a limited palette, low contrast between values and middle values, chroma neutrality, recession created through value change, loose edges, smooth gradation in colour, atmospheric perspective (receding objects becoming colour of the atmosphere) and a soft, suggestive style. The more gauzy works have an abstracted quality, very different from the approach of many ‘abstract’ painters.

The overarching feeling is that of gloom. The orchestration of the approach towards a pervasive and melancholy gloom is what I am interested in and in support of my exploration of a Folk Horror aesthetic in the context of painting. Rather than clear-cut representation, where things become objects, a tonalist approach leads in another direction towards a more unified surface creating visual ambiguity, where the nature of ‘things’ becomes opaque, pensive, and uncertain. Folk Horror’s pessimistic caste folds well into this.

As something of an aside, and in relation to FH’s pessimism, Melancholy has itself had a strong association with art. Roy Strong identifies the origins of this with Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino in the mid-15th century

“Ficino transformed what had hitherto been regarded as the most calamitous of all the humours into the mark of genius. Small wonder that eventually the attitudes of melancholy soon became an indispensable adjunct to all those with artistic or intellectual pretentions”  Strong, Roy (1969). The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

The connection of artistic sensibilities with the pessimistic philosophical and current within the work of ‘speculative realism’ (Land, Harman etc) produce a kind of intellectual ‘cool’. The type of pessimism seen in late 60s early 70s films such as WitchFinder General and The Wickerman (based on the grotesque and deeply pessimistic novel by David Pinner) chimes with that of HP Lovecraft’s supremely ‘anti-human’ fiction, carries the legacy of that melancholic disposition and with it a sense of humanity’s narcissistic androcentric folly.

Tonalism may be regarded as a form of benign Romanticism, but when regarded through the lens of FH’s pessimism something more is added – not just the picaresque (which certainly looms as the genre becomes established) but also potentially a brooding sense of human insignificance. In 19th century tonalism, there are often very tiny silhouetted figures present; often dwarved by the immensity of the natural world, but also devoid of features or individuality they become shadows, observers without agency, unable to rationalse or perceived clearly what they see; in that, they themselves become uncanny.

Enough chat. Here’s an account and evaluation of the work-in-progress

25/07/22 Board and canvas prep for trying different surfaces and boules.
Initial sketch – based on sketches on site and a 360 photo
mauve ground – canvas
First block in done and tonal work begins focusing on edges
Increasing value range & more modeling

More attention is needed to range not only to the tonal range, but also colour temperature and opacity. In addition, suggestions of detail through the use of more textural tools. That’s the plan!

major shapes in now, next phase working on edges and visual interest

w-i-p 07/08/22 Progress on defining edges, and someway to creating more visual interest with the brush marks;I’m asking myself as I do this, should I break up the colour blocks more? Also where is the ‘jamming’ ….?? One step at a time…what is the working ‘teaching’ me?
and a little more texture/definition – foreground perhaps not textured enough yet….
last pass of the day – got the oil bars out to help with creating a bumpier textures
11/08/22 Some glazing and modelling, knocked back the foreground. This is now a wrap 🙂

What did I learn here?

  • Importance of glazing to create more unity
  • Creating range in terms of: tone, temperature, saturation, and transparency.
  • More use of mediums ie glaze medium and cold wax
  • Balancing clarity of form with atmosphere
  • That I like atmospheric perspective
  • Creating close interest in an indirect way
  • More play in terms of exploration required before committing to a composition.

What I take to the next sprint…room for going off-piste. Next sprint is going to be more heterogeneous, a combo of plein-air sketches and some figurative work around folk horror. More about creating sketches and visual ideas than completing a painting.

By tanyakrzywinskablog

After working in the computer industry and spending some years conducting research into cinema and digital media, I became convinced that the innovative qualities of videogames as participatory media required closer academic attention. As such I have spent most of my career championing the inclusion of games within the academy, and arguing for games as an art form, a role I continue as a Professor at Falmouth University. Alongside this, and my scholarly work on the Gothic, I also maintain, in various forms, a visual art practice. This blog comes out of enrolling on the MA Fine Art degree programme at Central Sr Martins. It is mainly a record of my reflections on the work that I have undertaken for the degree. After having written about folk horror in games and cinema as an academic, this blog will focus on folk horror as a focus for my art practice.

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