How To Judge A Picture – Tone And Gradation

Tone is a word often used out of place as synonymous with harmony, but you will not so confuse the terms, for they are quite distinct in meaning. Harmony is the relation of color-qualities ; tone the relation of color-quantities. To be sure, they have much to do with one another, and it is very doubtful if tone may be produced without harmony, or harmony without tone. The distinction between them may be made plainer, perhaps, by saying that harmony has more particularly to do with the problem of whether one color is con-genial or well suited to another, while tone involves the grades of different colors used and their proportionate relationships to one another.

If you have had little experience among pictures (and I am addressing only the inexperienced) tone will be something of which you have heard much and seen but little ; that is to say, you may have seen it but have not recognized it. Doubtless you would notice its absence quicker than its presence, very much as you would detect a superfluous foot or a false rhyme in a line of poetry quicker than the rhythm of the whole poem. Its necessity in good painting is quite absolute, for a picture out of tone would be almost equivalent to an orchestra out of key, though the discord would not be quite so easy to detect. The eye is almost as sensitive an organ as the ear, and it is to please the eye, and through it to appeal to the emotions, that pictures with harmonious coloring and tone are painted.

Tone requires the accord of all the notes of the color-gamut with some leading color, precisely as in music all the notes are pitched in a common key to which they pay allegiance. The striking of a note out of key produces discord in both cases. You will understand that in full light the different colors of a piece of tapestry, for instance, must be equal in brightness or somberness, to produce tone ; but you will also understand that the same tapestry, when thrown in a heap on the floor, takes upon itself different degrees or gradations of light. Parts of it appear in full color, parts in half-tint, and parts in shadow. So tone is of a simple nature when in uniform light, and requires only a resemblance in quantity of tint ; but it is of a compound nature when it involves different lights or shadows, and then requires gradations of tint from the pre-dominant or highest color.

Simple tone is often seen in Oriental rugs where they have been worn, or so handled that one color is as much faded as another, and in this condition we hear them. spoken of as “good in tone.” Many of the pictures of the old masters which were originally bad pieces of color have become ” toned down ” through the mellowing effect of time and varnish, and in the case of colorists like Titian the warmth, richness, and general tone of the whole are very fine. The reverse of tone may be instanced in the new American rug, with its flaring reds and blues of all shades and degrees of intensity, and perhaps more strikingly in the Tulip Folly ” of GEROME, “The Missionary’s Story” of Vibert, or the sheep pictures of Verboeckhoven, all of which you will probably admire at first sight.

The intensity of color, whether it be bright or somber, is immaterial provided the general quantity of it be maintained throughout the whole. It makes little difference whether the scene represents a dingy factory town or a Madrid square at carnival time. For tone is dependent upon proportion and gradation, and not upon depth or height. A harbor scene on a smoky, foggy day, when all things blend into a predominant gray, or a dull landscape in March, are good examples of low tone; while an autumn scene, when the leaves are in the scarlet and yellow, may instance the reverse. In the one case the grays prevail throughout the scene, in the other the reds and yellows.

In a picture the intensity of each note may be given true to nature, but the representation is made true to nature as she appears to the artist, not as she is in reality ; and, therefore, the colors are graded off on all sides from a central light into lower notes. For nature appears to us as a depth, illumined by a central light, and surrounded by shadows increasing in density with the increase of distance. This may be instanced by a sunset effect. The sun itself is dominant and central; around it is an aureole of light; further removed come the reflections from the clouds; beyond them vapory colors ; and so on, lessening in intensity as they radiate, until at last color and light slip off into shadow. The same effect of central light and its gradations is apparent in any object or collection of objects in nature, no matter how small they may be. You have often noticed the play of light and color on an iridescent vase, the position of it always changing as you change. This forms what may be called the high light of the vase, and from it on all sides begin the gradations toward shadow. This high light appears on a common water-glass quite as strongly as on the vase, but you do not notice it because the light is not colored, but purely white. And so, in a less noticeable degree, it appears in all things—a hand, a human face, a building, a city, a landscape. In the case of the autumn landscape if we look at it through a picture-frame or a window-sash, we shall find the highest light and color directly before us, and these, owing to point of view, atmosphere, and distance, decrease toward the sides in perfect ratio.

Couture describes gradation so well, in speaking of Correggio’s picture of “Antiope,” in the Louvre, that you will pardon my quoting it : ” The woman enveloped in a panther-skin is as bright as a flame. The soft red tone forms the first halo, then the light-blue draperies with a slight greenish tint form the second halo. The satyr has a value a few degrees below that of the draperies, making it the third halo. When the bouquet is thus formed Correggio surrounds it with beautiful dark leaves shading toward the extremities of the canvas. These gradations are so well observed that if you put the picture at so great a distance that you cannot see the figures you will still have the effect of light.” This is again shown, perhaps even stronger, in Correggio’s “La Notte” at Dresden, showing the Adoration of the Shepherds at the cradle of Christ. All the light proceeds from the Child, and radiates toward darkness at the sides and corners.

You will of course understand that these are extreme instances, given in order to call attention to gradation of color and light. It is not so apparent in the great majority of pictures, and indeed there are many in which you will not notice it at all. We do not often meet with pictures looking as though there were a tunnel of light in the center of them and darkness on all sides; yet nevertheless this is the principle, though the practice is not so violent. The portraits of the ancients, in which the features of the face come peering out of bitumen darkness as though the subject were lost in the labyrinths of a coal mine and struggling to find his way out by the light of a lucifer match, are true enough to art, but purposely exaggerated in the lights and shades, in order to gain strength and effect. Rembrandt and his school painted in this way most successfully, but those who have tried to repeat their successes have not fared so well.

In trying to judge of tone and gradation in a picture, then, you would better look, first, for the vantage point of light, or that point where the light is the brightest. This should be near the center, and the bright color should usually be the key-note of the picture. Try this note upon your eye, very much as you do a note of music upon your ear. Get the pitch or tone in that way, and then try the other notes to see if they are in proper keeping with it in a descending scale. Some practice will enable you to detect discord in either case. In landscapes where there is much perspective and atmospheric effect a lack of positive gradation would be bad ; even in figure-pieces, still-life, or genre paintings it is necessary, and any picture in which the brightness or light placed at the sides or corners equals or excels the color or light of the center, may, as a general rule, be set down as poor work.

Almost any of Corot’s landscapes will answer as an illustration of good tone and gradation. In this ” Lake Nemi,” for instance, the yellowish light will be found central and predominant, and its piercing illuminating power gradually grows less, until in the foreground and at the sides it fades off into patches of dull light or somber shadows. You may trace the same effect in the Seine and Marne landscapes of Daubigny, in Millet’s peasant figures, in Lerolle’s ” Organ Rehearsal; “t and you will note other illustrations pitched in higher keys in the horses of Fromentin, the Venetian pieces of Ziem and Bunce, and the court interiors of Decamps (bet-ter still in his “Turkish Patrol,” now at the Metropolitan Museum). Now turn from these, and examine the ” Tulip Folly ” of Gerome, and you will very soon see the difference, to the advantage of the first-named painters. The tulip-beds make a crazy quilt of the picture, and the color is not only out of all harmony, but it is likewise out of all tone.

From what I have said I would not have you put me down as thinking Gerome a bad painter. On the contrary, he is a very good one, and possessed of many excellent qualities, but among them he does not always number color and tone. Perfection is not found among artists any more than among doctors or lawyers. The good fairies may combine at the artist’s birth to give him many excellences, but the evil fairy is ever at hand to mix in a vice with the virtues. Fromentin and Decamps, whom I have just cited as good in tone, both lacked in drawing—the very thing in which Gerdme is strong. We must admire genius for what it succeeds in doing, and not for what it fails to do ; and a painter who does but one thing well is nevertheless entitled to consideration.