Art – Tone And Light-And-Shade – Part 1

THE subject of Tone follows naturally after that of Color. For it is intimately connected with color and, in a way, taken in the mass, it is color, or at the least is so regarded by some of the American painters.

The word is used very loosely in criticism and in the studio, as art words generally are, and means various things to various people. To begin with, in a limited sense and as applied to single notes, it may have a meaning independent of color, as we say “a light tone” or “a dark tone,” referring to the quantity of light or dark contained in it regard-less of tint or hue. In that sense we may speak of the light or dark tones of a charcoal sketch or an etching as readily as of the tones of a painting in high color. Again, the word is often coupled with adjectives that give it a positive meaning ; as, for in-stance, we speak of a ” cool ” tone, a ” warm ” tone, a “deep” tone, a “rich” tone, meaning thereby certain qualities which colors may possess in or out of a picture. These meanings of the word it will not be necessary to speak of further because they explain themselves.

But tone has a larger, and, unfortunately, a more confused meaning in painting than mere color or light qualities in single notes. The word is also applied to a picture as a whole, and, so far as I can make out, it is used in three different senses in certainly three different countries, though I would not be understood as saying that all the painters in any one of the countries to be mentioned agree in one understanding of tone.

1. It seems that here in the United States some of the painters, especially the younger men, regard tone as the prevailing color or intensity of a picture, as we say the tone of a landscape is gray, that of an interior piece is red, that of a still-life yellow. Not that each note in these instances should of necessity be gray, red, or yellow, but that the general color scheme should be tinctured by one of these hues sufficiently to reflect it throughout the whole piece. We may call this color-tone.

2. In England the older painters understand by tone the proper diffusion of light as it affects the intensities of the different objects in a picture ; and the right relation of objects or colors in shadow to the parts of them not in shadow and to the principal light. This to me is largely a matter of value (French, valeur, a word for which the English sometimes substitute “keeping “) ; but inasmuch as it is useless to dispute about the terms that people choose to use, we must accept that of the English painters. Let us call this light-tone.

3. In France there is a third meaning given to tone, and, of course, every young student at Julian’s or the Beaux Arts will assure you that it is the right one and the only one. This French meaning, which is not universally accepted even in Paris, regards tone as the enveloppe—the whole setting and atmospheric make-up of a picture, wherein, if correctly rendered, all objects, lights, and colors take their proper places. This I should say was a mixture of aerial perspective and value again. For of late years that word ” value” seems to be a studio phrase for almost everything that has to do with the relationships of air, light-and-shade, and color. Nevertheless, let us refer to this as envelope-tone.

Aside from these understandings of tone you will find a beautiful haziness of thought and indefiniteness of meaning in the use of the word among all classes and nationalities of painters. In fact, it is a convenient term often lugged in by the ears to fill up a mental vacuum or round a sentence, and, as a result, there is a confusion which people sometimes think to clear up by arbitrary insistence upon their own understanding of the word. Let us try to avoid that at the least, though inconsistency be the result.

Regarded in the American sense for its color alone, as we shall first regard it, tone argues to a certain extent uniformity, and perhaps similarity. There must be one well-defined hue of color so strong in quantity as to preponderate over all the others and give a distinct character to the whole. It is no mat-ter if the color be high or low, provided it be dominant ; but the parcelling out of a given space to many hues will not answer. Hence the dress of our childhood’s friend, the harlequin, with its fantastic and checkered colors can hardly be looked upon as a revelation of color-tone ; while the dress of his companion, the fairy, in its fluffy confusion of pink gauze, pink bows, pink stockings, pink slippers, is quite the reverse. The gray day upon the Jersey marshes, which was spoken of in my last lecture, will illustrate simple color tone even better than the dress of the fairy. Smoke, sky, air, trees, water, foreground, and distance appear tinged with one hue as though the gray night-mists in departing had left their coloring on the things they had touched. The predominant note is apparent at once, and if such a scene were painted upon canvas it would properly be ranked as a gray-toned or a low-toned picture. The critics, if they spoke of it at all, might add that it was ” good in tone,” perhaps meaning thereby that the predominance of the one color was well maintained, and that each note of the color-gamut was in the proper key.

The similarity of tone in color to tone in music offers one way of illustrating a meaning rather difficult of explanation. Should you ask a young American painter what he means by the word, he might say to you that a true or a false tone in a painting is the exact counterpart of a true or a false note in a piece of music. The analogy certainly seems quite perfect. The color scheme of a picture, to be in tone, must be keyed to a certain pitch of color, and all the notes must harmonize with that pitch. If in a piece of music written in two sharps, notes be accidentally introduced belonging to the key of four flats, discord would be the immediate result. The musical flow would be broken by the introduction of alien sounds destructive to the melody. So if one paint such an Oriental scene as a Rose Festival, with the purpose of obtaining color-tonality, the whole piece should be keyed to the color of rose. The dresses of the women, the coloring of their hair and cheeks, the roses, the wall-hangings, the lounges and rugs must all be flushed with pink, so that if the canvas were placed on a revolving pin and whirled rapidly around, the coloring would blend into a uniform rose tint. Break this tint by, say, several large quantities of purple or blue, immediately there is a clash, and color-tone exists no more.

The one tint or hue must prevail, yet this does not argue that all other hues are to be rigidly excluded. Flats are introduced into the musical key of four sharps without an unpleasant sensation, but they do not occur often, nor are they more than half-notes when they do occur. So in the gray landscape it will not jar to have a red chimney on a house, and a small patch of blue in the sky ; nor will a tache of green or yellow mar the color-tonality of the Rose Festival, because such touches are but partial notes. But give up half the picture to one color, and half to another color, or even encroach upon the predominant hue by so much as one-third or one-fourth of another hue, and perfect color-tonality is gone.