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