Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Dark Side: Tonalism v. Colorism

On our way west this month, we stopped at my mentor Ann Templeton's house near Austin for a couple of nights. It's always a pleasure to visit with her, and this time, we got to see the great new studio she built. While we were there, I happened to mention that I've started using Gamblin's Chromatic Black. Ann, famous for her colorist approach to painting, warned me that the use of black might cause me to slip into tonalism. ("Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny," said Yoda to young Luke Skywalker.)

She's right - black can be a crutch for mixing correct values, and once you start using it habitually to make darks, you've lost your way. But I was using it mostly in my lights to kill the chroma and not so much in the darks.

Or so I thought. Yesterday, Trina made an observation about my Christmas Eve painting: "Where's all that good color you always use?" Well, I liked the painting because I'd successfully held back from my sometimes over-the-top color to something much closer to reality. But like Ann, Trina was right. Color is what I get excited about, and this painting was missing it. Still, there's nothing wrong with this painting - it's just more realistic than I like to paint.

So, I went out this afternoon and did the scene again. I got to the location about an hour earlier, so the shadows were a bit different. (I also made some artistic shape changes in the rocks.) This time, I scraped the black off my palette and worked very hard to keep the color clean and pure, but without being over-the-top. I think it worked, but I'm curious: Which view do you prefer? Here's the latest version, plus the Christmas Eve one.

"Courthouse Butte II" 5x7 oil - SOLD

"Courthouse Butte, Christmas Eve" 5x7 oil
Available from Windrush Gallery


Marsha Hamby Savage said...

Okay -- I agree with Ann and Trina. I like your color better on the second version than the first one. It actually looks more real to me than the tonalist looking one!

I can understand why you wanted to try it out. But, Stay with your colorist approach -- I don't think you are over the top!

Sandra Nunes said...

Hi Michael,
I prefer the subtle variations and rich colours in Courthouse Butte II.

ZanBarrage said...

Top one for me Michael. It is more vivid and alive with colour.

Robin Roberts said...

Thanks for sharing very interesting observations in your last several postings. The new painting almost looks like a different set of weather conditions. The difference seems to be WARMTH. Could the lights in the tonal version still be warm using the chromatic black??

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thanks, everyone! It's great to get feedback on this experiment. Robin - I could get more warmth in the tonal version's lights by adding more yellow. The Chromatic Black doesn't seem to cool things, just de-intensify color and darken. At least, that's what I found.

Carolyn Jean Thompson said...

Wow, what a difference. Yes, the top version is so much warmer - it reads as a very warm day - the kind of day the birds are singing and lizards running around - the kind of day you feel like "let's go explore!" The darker version feels like a winter day - sunny-hazy, but cool or cold, especially in the shade. A quiet, reflective and introspective day.

Elena Maza said...

I'll be the dissenting opinion--I actually prefer the first tonalist version because the colors appear more like what I remember of the Southwest. The colorist version is lovely, but the greens seem too Viridian green and unnatural for the Southwest vegetation.

The question for me is whether the same color harmony could be achieved in the first painting without using the black--say you used an ultramarine-violet for the shadows? How about trying one more version?

Eden Compton Studio said...

Nice Michael! I agree with everyone else -- really like the "colorist" version. Have a great New Year!

Miki Willa said...

I like the Christmas Eve colors better than the first one. There is more variation, it seems, which gives the overall effect of depth and richness. Interesting experiment.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael: I haven't commented right away cause I wanted to look at it again fresh today. I'm out of step with the comments, I love the Christmas Eve painting. to my eye the top one has a green overshadow, its a good painting too but the first one is clear and bright and clean.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thanks, everyone! Just to be clear in the event we have some newcomers to my blog, the "Christmas Eve" painting is the tonalist one in which I used black, and "II" is the colorist one in which I avoided black.

MLColeman said...

Michael, I agree with Elena Maza and feel that the greens in the second version are too GREEN! In
my experience, it definitely helps to gray the
greens (with either a complementary red/orange
in the light or a red/violet in the shadow or
black as you choose. It just seems to harmonize

Ed Terpening said...

I prefer #II (colorist), but each has it's own appeal. I guess which is better really depends on how each conveyed the feeling you wanted to express. Although ii's colors may not be as true to the region, they read as more light-filled, sunny and warm. The approach fits the subject.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thanks, Ed and ML! ML - It's good to hear from a fellow Verde Valley resident painter about green. You're right in that the greens could be subdued.

Donald Smith said...


In the first painting, the sky is beautiful. It stands out in my mind because of the dark shadow, and the slightly lighter distance is also dark. The ground is almost silouted against the sky, making the sky the dominant subject.

In the second painting, the red rocks are the subject because they contrast nicely with the dominant green color of the rest of the painting, including the slightly greenish sky.

I like the composition of the first painting more than the second, and the sky in the first. I would love to see a marriage of the first and second paintings where you use the sky and composition of the first painting, but the greens and reds in the ground values of the second painting. I hope that makes since... :)

Martin Wall said...

Without a doubt, the latest one appears more lively and exciting,I prefer to see in a painting the interpretation of what the artist sees rather than what I would see if I were standing in front of the scene.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thanks, Donald and Martin!

Jill Hartley said...

I consider myself a colorist, as color is really what gets me going, too. That said, I much prefer the Christmas Eve painting. It is certainly not without color. It captures and reflects a very sophisticated and beautiful color harmony...much like the desert landscape. The Courthouse Butte II colors seem garish and somewhat contrived to me, when compared to the subtlety and integrity of the color in the beautiful Christmas Eve painting.