Color And Tone
( Originally Published 1913 )
We shall frequently hear the words tone, tonal, tonality, applied to pictures. People say, for example, this picture is rich in tone; that has fine tonal qualities; another has a delicate tonality. It is rather difficult to explain what these words mean, for they do not seem to be used in the same way by everybody. However, let us try.
It is clearly a word derived from music,, where its meaning is more definite. We speak of a piano's tone, by which we mean that, though it sounds the same notes as another piano, the quality of the sounds differs. We shall be using the word quality often in the present chapter, so let us be sure we understand its meaning. It is from the Latin word quail's, which means of what kind. Of what kind is this piece of dress goods ; what is its quality, compared with another piece, at first sight similar ? Is it all wool, for example, while the other is cotton mixture? Is it softer, while the other is harder and drier ? Will the one stand washing, while the other will shrink ? Similarly, when the same note is struck on two pianos the tone of one may be rich, mellow, resonant, while that of the other is thin, raw, and metallic.
Why is the tone superior ? You know, I suppose, that when a piano string is struck it vibrates. That is to say, it ceases to be a straight line, and becomes agitated into a series of waves. In order to in-crease the volume of the sound a thin layer of wood, called the sound board, is placed beneath the strings. As the string vibrates, this board vibrates in sympathy, and so the volume of sound is increased and enriched. Now the least thing may disturb the perfection of this sympathetic vibration. Accordingly, the superiority of the one piano is due to the fact that all its parts are of finer make and material, and are more perfectly adjusted to one another. They are in so perfect a relation, that there is no jar in any part, and thus the body of the instrument is a united whole.
The tone of the piano, then, is due to the perfect relation existing between the parts of the piano. Applying this idea to a picture : it would seem that tone is the result of all the colors being so perfectly related to one another, that the vibration or rhythm of the whole color-harmony is increased.
Now this is certainly, in a general way, the meaning of the word tone. So, although the word itself is new to you, the idea contained in it is not. We have talked a good deal about color-relations, rhythm, and harmony. You remember our talk on Vermeer's picture. Well, his is a tonal picture, because of the perfect relation of all the Colors to one another. It is beautiful in tone ; its tonality is exquisite. And do you remember one particular feature of its exquisiteness ? I pointed out to you that it is full of lighted atmosphere, and that the atmosphere seems to vibrate; that its rhythm gasses through and through the picture, uniting all the masses of color into a harmonious whole. We noted the difference between this kind of rhythm and that in Raphael's Jurisprudence, where the rhythm is the result of line. You could not describe that picture as tonal; for in it color plays a very unimportant part. Raphael was busied with the relations, not of color, but of line.
I have reminded you of the rhythm of atmosphere in Vermeer's picture, because some people describe tone, as the result of fusing all the forms and colors into a whole by enveloping them in atmosphere. But I think, if you have followed our talks carefully, you will see that this use of the word tone is pretty much the same as the one we have arrived at. For you cannot see the effects of atmosphere except in relation to the coloring of nature. And I like our explanation better than this one, because it is broader, and therefore includes more. It includes, for example, all Japanese prints. Many of them exhibit no suggestion of atmosphere; yet they are always tonal in the sense that their colors are in perfect relation.
Now, let me tell you of another definition of tone, which again is included in our own. Some people will tell you that a picture is tonal, because there is some one prevailing hue of color in it. By "prevailing " we mean that some one color plays the most important part. In Vermeer's picture, you may remember, it was blue. The girl's skirt made a strong spot of blue. We are aware of other colors in the picture, but they play subsidiary parts. What we are most conscious of is a sense of blue throughout the picture--a prevailing tone of blue. So in Whistler's White Girl—Symphony in White, Number One, there is a prevailing tone of white.
But this is only another way of saying that in each picture the colors are in a perfect relation to one another. Whether there are more or fewer colors, and whether we receive an impression of many colors or one in particular, does not really affect the question. When all is said and done, tone is the result of color relations, so arranged that they pro-duce a rhythmic harmony.
An artist, when he paints a tonal picture, has in mind the relative dark and light of colors, and their relative coolness and warmth. Let me explain. First the relative coolness or warmth of colors. The artist regards blue as the coolest hue. As a matter of fact violet reflects even less light than blue; still, for his practical purposes, an artist says that the cool hue is blue, and he associates with it violet and green. On the other hand, yellow, he treats as warm, and associates with it red and orange.
And, if you consider for a moment, the distinction of warm and cool hues, which is practised by artists and founded on the nature of light, appeals to our own experience. You will have no hesitation in feeling that a bunch of violets, surrounded by green leaves, gives you a feeling of coolness, as compared with another bunch composed of red and yellow poppies.
Accordingly, if an artist has made up his mind that his tonal harmony shall be a cool one, he either composes it entirely of cool hues, or sees to it that some one or all of them shall " prevail." The warmer hues may be introduced for the sake of contrast, but very sparingly. And, of course, he will reverse his use of the hues, if he wishes the tone to be a warm one. This you could have guessed for yourselves; but I point it out because most people, I believe, prefer a warm picture. If it represents the sun setting in a mass of crimson over which the sky is orange, passing to yellow ; and the effect of this warm light is shown on the surrounding trees and meadow, so that everything seems to be kindled into a dreamy warmth, we easily find the picture very beautiful. It is so attractive in its richness and mellow warmth, that the quiet coolness of that picture opposite may seem tame by comparison, and we pass it by. On the other hand, if, recognising the difference of the intention, we study the latter picture carefully, we may very likely come to admire it even more than the warmer one, by reason of the very quietness of its appeal, or because of the purity and freshness of feeling that probably pervade it.
And now for the artist's other habit of considering the relative lightness and darkness of hues. It comes into play, whether his tonal arrangement be a cool one or a warm one. For by this means he introduces contrasts of color; and as we have pointed out, it is by contrasts as well as by similarities, that a harmony is produced.
There are two ways of considering the difference between light and dark. One is to treat it as an arrangement of chiaroscuro, the other as an arrangement of values. This is a distinction that I have already explained; but I will refresh your memory of it, in its special application to tone.
Chiaroscuro, as you remember, means light and dark. So it could be used of the light and dark of values; but, as a matter of fact, it is applied to the distribution of light and shadows, adopted by the artists of older times, and still used by many modern ones. In applying it, they represented the light, as coming from one direction, usually from behind their backs; and as striking the objects and figures in the picture at an angle, either on the right side or on the left. They also took care that the light should be concentrated or particularly bright at one spot. On the contrary, the artist who considers the light and dark of values, sees the light in the scene he is painting, and observes that it pervades all parts of it.
But, to return to the chiaroscuro; its effect is to produce strong contrasts of light and shade : high lights, nearly white in the parts most exposed to the ows. We know that the scene may be filled with light and yet there will be certain places where the light is intercepted, so that shadows are formed. Our lawn in summer is aglow with warm light, but every tree and bush casts its shadow. Or the same spot in winter is covered with snow and the air is bright with cool light; yet here and there a trunk of a tree spreads a thin layer of shadow.
But the difference is in the way the modern artist regards shadow. He has studied nature for the purpose of representing the actual effects of nature ; and, in so doing, has discovered that the secret of all effects is due to the action of light. So he has learned to look at everything, shadows included, in its relation to light. A shadow to him, then, is not something different from light; it is a lessening of the light, Some of the light has been intercepted by the foliage of the tree, so that less light reaches the ground. It may be that very little light filters through the leaves. But, whether more or little, the spot from which the light has been intercepted, still contains some light. Even what we usually call the shadows have light in them.
So, while chiaroscuro is a contrast of light and dark, the contrast of values may better be described as one of light and less light.
Observe how this works. Since the modern artist sees light in shadows, he also sees color in them. And their color varies according to the quality of the light and according to the local color of the spot affected. The local color of your lawn is green; therefore, even under the trees, where little light reaches the grass, the latter will still contain a greenish hue, though the value of it will be much lower than that of the sunlit lawn. On the other hand, the hue of the shadow will also be affected by the quality of the light, differing according as the light is dull or brilliant, and as it inclines to white or yellow. This is too intricate a subject to attempt to discuss here, but I mention it in order that, if you are wide awake and interested, you may amuse yourself by studying these effects in your walks abroad.
A simple way of starting the subject is to study the hue of the shadow cast by your hand on a sheet of white paper. I am working by the light of a Welsbach burner, and the shadow of my hand is a pale reddish purple. The other day, on a bright February morning, I laid my hand on a piece of white paper and the shadow was bluish. In each case, owing to the amount of light reflected from the white paper, the shadow was very transparent, and beautiful in its delicacy and softness.
Well, this little example illustrates what artists have discovered about shadows lying on snow. They are very transparent, very delicate, and tend toward a hue of blue or plum color, according to the quantity of light.
Now to sum up our remarks on tone. When we speak of a picture having tonal qualities, we mean, that the artist has so combined the related darks and lights and the related coolness and warmth of his colors that he has produced a harmony, threaded through and through with a suggestion of rhythm or vibration. And the vibration will be most felt, when the suggestion of atmosphere pervades the picture.
In the case of the Descent from the Cross we have already hinted at the power of tone to arouse emotion. I may add that tone always makes a strong appeal to feeling—to abstract feeling. The tonal harmony of an opal, whose pinks and greens are suffused with creamy atmosphere, arouses in us delight, quite apart from any suggestion to our mind. The delight is one of pure feeling. Can you not see that, if an artist uses the tonal harmony of the opal as a color scheme for a picture, the harmony would still delight us in an abstract way ? It would be interwoven now with the subject of his picture, and we need not try, nor do we wish to separate them. But the sentiment of the figure or the scene will be all the more tender and lovely for the harmony with which it is suffused.
I have in mind, for example, the pictures by the American artist, .Thomas W. Dewing. They show you one or two women standing or sitting, apparently lost in reverie, while placed beside them may be a table and a vase and on the wall a mirror. If you ask me what the picture is about, I will say: Nothing. There is no subject to them in the sense that you can describe : who the girl is, why she is there, and what she is doing. So, instead of talking to you about the figures, I should try to draw your, attention to the subtlety and beauty of the tonal harmoray. I should recommend you to look at it with a mind as free from outside thoughts, as when you were looking at the opal. Then by degrees, perhaps, as the beauty of the tone winds itself about your imagination, you will begin to find some sentiment of beauty suggested by the girl herself.
What I wish you to understand is that an artist, who has the gift of composing tonal harmonies, em-ploys them to express the abstract feelings or emotions that he has regarding his subject. A celebrated example is Whistler's Portrait of the Artist's Mother, that now hangs in the Luxembourg Gallery, in Paris. I expect you have seen photographs of it and remember that it represents an oldish lady, in a white lace cap and black gown, with her hands folded over a handkerchief on her lap. We see her figure seated in profile, in front of a grey wall. On it are two little black-framed pictures, and on one side hangs a dark green curtain.
When it was first exhibited the artist called it " An Arrangement in Black and Grey." It may be that he did not wish to drag his Mother into publicity or make a parade of his feelings as a son. But there was another reason, a much greater one. The abstract feelings that he had for his Mother—the love, reverence, and appreciation of her dignity and tenderness—took color in his artist's mind in an arrangement of black and grey. What a poet might have put into the rhythm and harmony of his verse, Whistler has expressed through the rhythm of a tonal harmony of color.
Another artist who was not a tonalist, might have contrived to put into the face and hands and into the lines of the figure as much dignity and gracious tenderness. But his picture would not move us so deeply as this one. For Whistler—how shall I de-scribe it ?—has woven the dignity and tenderness into every part of the canvas. The mother sits alone with her own thoughts, but all about her is the music of color, choiring the love and reverence of her son. No wonder the picture takes its hold upon us; until we see in it not a mother, but the type of what the conception of Mother means to us.
Its tonal harmony is one that is distinguished by sobriety and reticence. It consists of quiet and sober colors; it does not talk to our hearts in brilliant glowing words. It moves us rather by its silence and reserve, its reticence. I mention this because, at first, perhaps, you will be more attracted by brilliant and glowing harmonies; and they are beautiful too. They may fill us, as those of Rubens do, with triumphant joy; or plunge us into poignant emotion as do Rousseau's sunsets. But, just as our capacity of feeling knows no limits, so there is no limit to the variety of the tonal harmonies that may stir it. And we shall grow to find some of the most exalting and beautiful sensations in those harmonies that are very quiet, subtle, and that speak to our imagination in a "still small voice."
As a farewell illustration, to sum up the meaning of the quality and expression of tone, let me return to sound tones. Have, you ever thought of quality and expression in the case of your own voice? I do not mean the singing voice. Many of us do not possess this kind of voice; but we all have a speaking and reading voice. What are the quality and expression of yours? I am thinking now of the way you use it ; of the quality and expression of the sounds you utter.
When you speak; do you drawl " through your nose " or chatter very quickly? Are the sounds shrill or harsh or monotonous? Perhaps you have never stopped to consider. It is astonishing how few people do. Most people think of their voice only as a contrivance for uttering words : they turn it on and off like a faucet and let the words run. How frequently one sees a pretty girl or woman, tastefully dressed and of charming manners, who is altogether pleasing as long as she keeps her mouth shut. But the moment she opens it, half her charm vanishes. There is no tone in her voice; no varieties of light and shade in the pitch of the sounds, no varieties of quietness or warmth in her speech; no rhythm of effect. Even if it is not harsh, it is disagreeably monotonous.
Or somebody else reads a passage from Shakespeare, say The Balcony Scene in " Romeo and Juliet." He is not as bad a reader as he might be; for example, he does not stumble over the words or jump over the punctuation. In fact, he reads intelligently, with considerable attention to the meaning of the speeches. And yet, after all, he reads very badly, for his voice fails entirely to bring out the music of the verse. The scene is one of the loveliest ever written, and it was written to be spoken aloud, so that the loveliness of the thought might be conveyed in sounds of corresponding loveliness. But of this our reader seems ignorant. He does not appear to know that Shakespeare intended every vowel sound to be uttered in such a way as to bring out the particular quality of its beauty; and arranged the sequence of the sounds, so that one should flow into another in an exquisite rhythm of rising and falling melody. This reader " murders " the beauty of the scene, because there is no quality in the tone of his voice and no tonal expression. Do you understand what I mean?
If you have not thought of this before, I hope you will give it some attention in future. For it is in the power of everyone of us to improve the quality and expression of our voices.