The power of tonality – A painters perspective

Art is an incredible medium when used to its fullest potential. What I mean by that is; it has the capabilities to surround the viewer with its imagery and play with the emotions. Paintings are particularly effective in doing this through the use of color tones and ‘temperature’. For example; El Greco used a lot of blue and green throughout his body of work. The outcome is that the subject matter comes off as ghostly and perhaps a little alien. This is in high contrast with Georgia O’Keeffe’s desert paintings, which utilise reds, yellows, and browns to create a ‘warm’ and appealing landscape.

Of course, these are not the only artist to make master works of tonality. Here are five artists (which you may recognize) who have harnessed the power of tonality to emphasize the subjects in their work.1

William Turner, ‘Fishermen at Sea’, exhibited in 17962Claude Monet ‘Snowy Landscape at Twilight’

Monet and Turner, whose works are separated by almost 100 years, both use tonality to evoke the power of a storm. Turner’s characteristic seascape shows a lone ship being tossed by large waves. As a viewer, you get the feeling that it should be night, if not for the bright sun breaking throug the coal colored clouds above. What an incredible way to use greens, browns, and blacks to emote turmoil. Monet, on the other hand, uses white with the most effective touches of grey and red to detail the density of the snow on the landscape. The trees, the house ahead, and even the ground are all vieled in a generous coating of snow and ice. It makes me think of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s written descriptions of the prairie during the winter storms.

3Rembrandt van Rijn , ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ , c. 1661–16694Diego Velazquez, ‘Old Woman Cooking Eggs’, 1618

Rembrandt and Velazquez, who lived and painted in the same time period (Baroque), both used the power of contrasting tonality in their work. Both Velazquez’s ‘Old Woman’ and Rembrandt’s ‘Prodigal Son’ are bathed in (or painted in) golden yellow tones. While both are wearing clothes of differing colors, each pigment is mixed with a little yellow, white, or light brown to give warmth to the figure. This helps them to contrast to the very dark background. I like how Rembrandt has figures in the background that are almost indiscernible. By being part of the opposing (darker) tonal group, we as viewers are shown that they are not the most important part of the portrait; that the son and father are. Velazquez, however, chooses to have all elements of interest in the lighter tones in his painting, leaving the back as a dark void of mystery.5

Vincent Van Gogh, ‘self portrait’, 1889

Van Gogh is probably one of the most interesting painters concerning tonality. His purposeful usage of one color in a body of work is a strong reference to emotion (particularly in his portraits). His expressive brush work swirls the blues, and slight yellow and green, around his face. Even his skin has a bluish hue. These elements describe a somber or sorrowful state of mind. Its as almost if the troubles around him are seeping into his skin (like the blue).

That being said, tonality is both the friend of the artist and the art-lover. It is a wonderful story teller.