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The Visual Elements - Tone

Tone is the lightness or darkness of a color. It is used in art to suggest form or to create a dramatic atmosphere.

JOHANNES VERMEER (1632-1675) Girl with the Pearl Earring, 1665 (oil on canvas)

Girl with the Pearl Earring, 1665 (oil on canvas)

The Visual Element of Tone defines the lightness or darkness of a color. The tonal values of an artwork can be adjusted to alter its expressive character.

Tone can be used:

  • to create a contrast of light and dark.

  • to create the illusion of form.

  • to create a dramatic or tranquil atmosphere.

  • to create a sense of depth and distance.

  • to create a rhythm or pattern within a composition.

Our selection of artworks illustrated below have been chosen because they all use tone in an inspirational manner. We have analyzed each of these to demonstrate how great artists use this visual element as a creative force in their work.

Tone As the Contrast of Light and Dark

CARAVAGGIO (c.1527-1610) Basket of Fruit, 1595-96 (oil on canvas)

CARAVAGGIO (c.1527-1610)
Basket of Fruit, 1595-96 (oil on canvas)

Basket of Fruit' is a striking display of summer fruit that, uncharacteristically for Caravaggio, appears dark against a light background. It is considered to be the first freestanding still life in Western art and is the only true example of the genre by the artist. Caravaggio demonstrates outstanding skill in the way he captures the delicate variations in the colors and textures of the produce. The fruit in the painting is overripe showing signs of decay with the leaves shrivelling as they begin to dry out. The real subject of the work, however, is not the 'trompe l'oeil' realism of its dazzling painting technique but its Vanitas undertones as the fruit enters the initial stages of decomposition with its dark silhouette eclipsed by the symbolic luminosity of its background.

JUAN SANCHEZ COTAN (1560-1627) Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602 (oil on canvas)

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, 1602 (oil on canvas)

Juan Sanchez Cotan's 'Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber' reverses the tonal contrasts of Caravaggio's still life: dark objects against a light background have now become light objects against a dark background. Cotan's fruits and vegetables gently emerge from the darkness into bright sunlight, emphasizing their strikingly naturalistic detail. The framework of their background is a 'cantarero', a 17th century larder cut from the cold stone wall where the produce is hung from strings to prevent it from spoiling.

There is no symbolic message in this work. The painting is simply a virtuoso demonstration of the Cotan's ability to imitate reality in spellbinding detail. Every element is geared to a visual appreciation of the objects:

  • They have been mathematically arranged in a hyperbolic curve to add some ingenuity to their composition.

  • They have been meticulously painted from individual studio studies to maximize their realism. We know this as the same objects are repeated identically in other works.

  • They emerge from the darkness into a radiant light that illuminates every circumference, wrinkle and ragged edge in exquisite detail.

PIETER CLAESZ (c.1597-1660) Still Life, 1633 (oil on oak panel)

PIETER CLAESZ (c.1597-1660)
Still Life, 1633 (oil on oak panel)

Pieter Claesz combines the tonal techniques of Caravaggio and Cotan to construct a 'counterchange' of dark and light tones in his 'Still Life' of 1633. The glass roemer on the left is dark against a light background while the breakfast roll on the right is light against a dark background. This counterchange is created by the graduation of tones in the background and is an artistic device that artists use to increase the dramatic impact of a subject.

Tone as Form

ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528) Old Man aged 93, 1521 (brush drawing on paper primed with color)

ALBRECHT DÜRER (1471-1528)
Old Man aged 93, 1521 (brush drawing on paper primed with color)
Note above the drawing reads 'The man was 93 years old and still healthy.'

Albrecht Dürer, the great German artist from Nuremberg, made many tonal studies of heads, hands and drapery as preparatory sketches for his paintings. While on a visit to Venice in 1505, he adopted a Renaissance drawing technique called 'chiaroscuro' (Italian for 'light-dark') which used three basic tones to create the illusion of form:

  • the dark tones were created with black ink.

  • the light tones were established with white gouache, an opaque form of watercolor.

  • the mid-tones were provided by the color of the Venetian Blue paper that he found in Northern Italy.

Dürer's drawing of the 'Old Man aged 93' (1521) is a superbly skilled brush drawing that used the 'chiaroscuro' technique to render tone. It was done some years after his trip to Italy on paper that he primed with a grey-violet wash for the mid-tone as he no longer had access to his Italian source of Venetian Blue paper. Dürer built up his dark tones in several layers of cross-hatched brushstrokes, graduating their shades from the natural black of the ink, through three or four paler concentrations to the mid-tone of the primed background. The highlights were hatched and stippled in white to complete the wrinkled form of the old man with his luxuriant beard.

STANLEY SPENCER (1891-1959) Self Portrait, 1914 (oil on canvas)

Self Portrait, 1914 (oil on canvas)

Stanley Spencer, the diminutive eccentric English artist, painted this 'Self Portrait' two years after he left the Slade School of Art. It displays a total mastery of the academic skills that were taught there, particularly his use of 'chiaroscuro', which by his time had come to refer to the dramatic contrast of light and dark tones in painting. The inspiration for the portrait obviously draws on Spencer's love of Renaissance painting and by association it inherits those classical qualities. However, it also has an element of Romanticism in its introspective vision. What makes this painting so appealing to modern eyes is the combination of Spencer's intensive personal scrutiny, the accuracy and expressive vitality of his brushwork in the painting of his facial musculature, and the extremes of tone which hold the form together with such dramatic tension.

GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891) Seated Boy with a Straw Hat, 1883 (conté crayon on paper)

GEORGES SEURAT (1859-1891)
Seated Boy with a Straw Hat, 1883 (conté crayon on paper)

Georges Seurat, the Post Impressionist painter who invented Pointillism, also devised a drawing technique that focused exclusively on tone and its ability to render form. 'Seated Boy with a Straw Hat' is a tonal study for a figure in his first major painting, 'Bathers at Asnières'. It is done using the flat edge of conté crayons to create broad areas of tone on a heavily textured paper . (Conté crayons or sticks are made from compressed charcoal bonded with wax or clay to form a square sectioned drawing medium). When you draw in this manner, the 'tooth' of the textured paper holds the pigment while the 'valleys' remain white giving you a dark tone that is speckled with light. You can then adjust the density of the dark by building up the tone in layers.

The 'lines' in Seurat's drawings are really edges which are formed when adjacent dark and light tones meet. Seurat adjusts the tones of the figure and its background so that the outline of the image emerges from the contrast of its edges. For example, if look at the boy's hat and face: the back of his hat is formed by a contrast of dark against light, the front is formed by a contrast of light against dark, while his shaded face is formed by brightening the tone of its background. This is the ideal technique for creating preparatory studies for Pointillist paintings which rely on the tonal distribution of areas of dots and not the sharpness of lines for their definition.

HAROLD COHEN (b. 1928) Richard V, 1967 (silkscreen on paper)

HAROLD COHEN (b. 1928)
Richard V, 1967 (silkscreen on paper)

Since the 1960's, Harold Cohen has been a pioneer in the development of technology as a creative medium in art. His portrait of the pop artist, Richard Hamilton, is one of a series of ten silkscreen prints that explore the parameters of perception in relation to tone, color and form. He uses a photographic halftone grid to reduce a black and white image of Richard Hamilton to a network of dots. This also has the effect of reducing the resolution of the image to the threshold where any further reduction would make its form unrecognizable.

In each of the prints Cohen allocates three different colors which create a tonal relationship: one color is applied to the dot structure, one color to the background and one color to the drop-shadow that lifts the dots off the background. The final series of prints explores the relationships between tone and color and how they affect our perception of form.

SALVADOR DALI (1904-1989) Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire, 1940 (oil on canvas)

SALVADOR DALI (1904-1989)
Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire, 1940 (oil on canvas)

Salvador Dali devised a surrealist visualization technique that he called his 'paranoic critical method'. This involved composing shapes and forms that could be perceived as alternative images balanced on the borderline between illusion and reality.

In 'Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire', Dali's wife Gala, in the guise of a slave, sits at a table and watches the transactions of this inhuman trade. As her mind wanders from the scene, the image reconfigures as a bust of Voltaire, the French philosopher who advocated the type of rationalist thinking that was detested by the Surrealists. Why then did Dali choose Voltaire if he was so despised? The answer lies in the paradox of his painting: he is using a symbol of rationality to subvert a rational interpretation of the work, thereby eclipsing rationalism with the irrationalism of Surrealism.

Dali uses the way we perceive tone to construct the form of this 'paranoic critical' image. He understands that our brain will register the tonal structure of an image before it processes its details. Consequently, he reduces the details of the clothes on the two traders to tones of black and white thus enabling them to stand out and be reinterpreted as the features of Voltaire's face: their heads become his eyeballs and sockets; their white ruffs his cheekbones and nose; their aprons his chin and shoulder; while the crumbling arch above them outlines the top of his head. The 'paranoic critical' illusion is complete as the reconfigured image floats above the broken base of a fruit dish which doubles as the pedestal for Voltaire's bust.

Tone As Drama

PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973) Guernica, 1937 (oil on canvas)

PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)
Guernica, 1937 (oil on canvas)

The painting of 'Guernica' is the depiction of the artist's horror at the bombing of the small Basque village during the Spanish civil war. Pablo Picasso painted this huge canvas (11ft 6in x 25ft 7in) for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair to focus international attention on this barbaric act.

'Guernica' is probably the most dramatic painting of the 20th century, yet it is painted in tones of black and white without any hint of color. Picasso deliberately avoids using color due to its emotional import which would detract from the dark despair of the subject. He turns to the black and white tonality of newspapers to reinforce the reality of his stylized drama and to present the brutality of the atrocity as authoritative fact. To emphasise this relationship he stipples the hair on the body of the dying horse with lines reminiscent of newsprint. The absence of color in the work also lends a note of respect for the innocent victims of Guernica.

Tone as Tranquility

JEAN FRANÇOIS MILLET (1814-1875) The Angelus, 1857-59 (oil on canvas)

The Angelus, 1857-59 (oil on canvas)

The Angelus is a Catholic devotion that can be traced back to the 13th century. The Angelus bell would ring three times a day to call the community to prayer. Traditionally workers would stop their activities at the sound of the bell and say the Angelus prayer in the morning, at noon and again in the evening.

This painting by Jean François Millet portrays two Barbizon peasant workers who have stopped harvesting potatoes to say the evening Angelus. The man has reverently removed his cap and the woman joins her hands in prayer. They both bow their heads in respect as the Angelus bell peels from the church tower on the distant horizon. Millet's use of subdued tones captures the peace and tranquility of the moment while the bright tones of the sunset gently silhouette their bowed heads to highlight the humility of their prayer.

There is an alternative interpretation of Millet's 'Angelus' that originates from Salvador Dali which still registers with its muted tones and tranquil mood. Dali believed that this was a funeral scene and that the couple were praying over their dead child. At his insistence, the Louvre x-rayed the image to reveal a coffin shaped box painted beneath the basket of potatoes.

Tone as Depth and Distance

CHARLES SHEELER (1883-1965) Canyons, 1951 (oil on canvas)

Canyons, 1951 (oil on canvas)

Charles Sheeler, the American painter and photographer, was associated with Precisionism, the first homegrown modern art movement in the USA. The Precisionists described the urban and industrial landscape of modern America with a crystal cut vocabulary of geometric forms and dramatic perspectives.

'Canyons' is a cubist influenced cityscape of transparent and opaque silhouettes derived from building facades, windows and rooftops. Sheeler colors these shapes using a graduated scale of tones to create an atmospheric impression of aerial depth and distance. The title of the painting is a poetic metaphor linking the urban landscape of streets and skyscrapers in modern America to the geological landscape of rivers and ravines in the American wilderness.

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