Get Creative at Home: Tonalism and Monochrome Color Palettes

High Museum of Art
Feb 12 · 4 min read

Find out how Tonalist artists of the 1800s used subtle modulations in color to create mood and atmosphere, and then create your own monochrome collage.

By Melissa Katzin, Manager of Family Programs, High Museum of Art

Do you have a favorite color? Do certain colors make you happy or sad, excited or calm? Artists throughout history have used specific colors to convey a feeling, mood, or idea. Some of the most well-known artists who used color this way were part of the Tonalism movement, which started in 1880.

Tonalist artists began painting landscapes using a limited color palette. The tone of a color is when gray is mixed in to make the color less vibrant.

Painted grassy landscape covered in green with a dark gray sky.
Painted grassy landscape covered in green with a dark gray sky.
Moody blue moonlit landscape of a mill in France.
Moody blue moonlit landscape of a mill in France.
George Inness (American, 1825­–1894), The Passing Storm, 1892; Gaines Ruger Donoho (American, 1857–1916), Moonlight, Mills at Pont-Aven, ca. 1900

Do you see different tones of green in Inness’s The Passing Storm? What other colors can you find in the painting?

Painted hazy landscape of a harbor with buildings and spires in the distance.
Painted hazy landscape of a harbor with buildings and spires in the distance.
Birge Harrison (American, 1854–1929), Quebec from the Harbor, ca. 1910

Tonalists were also interested in using color to convey the atmosphere of the painting or the time of day. Look closely at Birge Harrison’s Quebec from the Harbor.

Imagine you’re inside of the painting. What season do you think it is? What time of day?

Vertical painted portrait of a slender woman in all black, rendered with creamy brushstrokes.
Vertical painted portrait of a slender woman in all black, rendered with creamy brushstrokes.
Vertical painting in shades of white depicting a woman seated in profile holding a flower.
Vertical painting in shades of white depicting a woman seated in profile holding a flower.
Robert Henri (American, 1865–1929), Lady in Black Velvet (Portrait of Eulabee Dix Becker), 1911; Albert Herter (American, 1871­–1950), Portrait of Bessie (Miss Elizabeth Newton), 1892

Other artists working during the turn of the twentieth century, such as Robert Henri and Albert Herter, experimented with Tonalism. They painted their portraits of women almost entirely in a single color — black in Robert Henri’s Lady in Black Velvet (Portrait of Eulabee Dix Becker), and white in Albert Herter’s Portrait of Bessie (Miss Elizabeth Newton).

Compare and contrast the two portraits. What do the different colors make you feel about each sitter? Would you feel differently if the paintings were bright blue, or yellow, or even pink? If you could have a Tonalist artist paint a portrait of you in one color, what color would you choose?

Curved triangular canvas painted entirely in a single hue of red.
Curved triangular canvas painted entirely in a single hue of red.
Annette Cone-Skelton (American, born 1942), Untitled, 1974; Ellsworth Kelly (American, 1923–2015), Red Curve VI, 1982

Limited color palettes were a characteristic of an art movement that began nearly eighty years after Tonalism: Minimalism. Minimalist artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, and Annette Cone-Skelton created artworks that considered the ways colors relate to each other, the space they occupy, and the viewer.

Abstract painting with thick horizontal stripes in light gray and white.
Abstract painting with thick horizontal stripes in light gray and white.
Painted snowy landscape blown out with bright whites and grays.
Painted snowy landscape blown out with bright whites and grays.
Agnes Martin (American, born Canada, 1912–2004), Untitled #3, 1994; John Henry Twachtman (American, 1853–1902), Along the River, Winter, ca. 1889

In Agnes Martin’s Untitled #3, bands of color extend across the canvas. The painting’s strips of colors are intended to remind the viewer of the dry, sunny atmosphere of New Mexico, where Martin lived from 1968 until 2004. Compare Martin’s Untitled #3 to John Henry Twachtman’s Along the River, Winter. How did each artist use a similar color palette to convey very different locations?

Get Creative at Home!

Create your own monochromatic masterpiece! Consider what color you want to use in your artwork. Is it your favorite color or a color that holds meaning for you? Gather mixed-media objects that are of the color you have chosen, such as construction paper, soda caps, buttons, fabric, and so on. If you have paint, markers, or crayons, you can also color white objects to fit in with your color scheme.

Choose a background on which to create your collage, such as a piece of paper or cardboard. Using glue, attach your mixed-media objects to your background, paying attention to the composition, or how they are arranged.

When you have completed your monochromatic collage, give your artwork a title!

Love being creative with the whole family? Head to the High for Family Art Escapes, a program designed for children ages six through twelve years with their caregivers.

Stay connected! Follow us:
Medium | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube

High Museum of Art

Stories from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

High Museum of Art

Written by

The High is Atlanta’s art museum, bringing creativity to your everyday. Our collections, exhibitions, and programs are always here for you.

High Museum of Art

Stories from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

High Museum of Art

Written by

The High is Atlanta’s art museum, bringing creativity to your everyday. Our collections, exhibitions, and programs are always here for you.

High Museum of Art

Stories from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store