Archive for July, 2020

Impressionist, Tonalist or…?

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020

‘Most everyone’s probably heard of Impressionistic painting.  You know: Monet, Renoir, Seurat,…  In their efforts to create the impression of vibrant light and atmosphere around their subjects, these artists focused on ways to manipulate their colors to create a sense of energy and light in the viewer’s mind.  They were noted for experimenting with various ways to blend hues optically by placing often contrasting or startling combinations of color adjacent to one another directly on the canvas, rather than mixing them entirely on the palette.

But we don’t hear as much about Tonalism, which emphasized control of values—lights, darks, and a range of grayed colors.  The Tonalists tried to maintain subtlety in their chromatic blends to suggest a mood instead of depending on bright colors to create excitement and a sense of atmosphere or story.

Tonalists were generally more concerned about establishing mood, evoking the viewer’s more ethereal emotions, than in depicting specific subjects and details. “Facts” are limited. Details may disappear in soft edges and deep shadows. Suggestion often displaces detail. The viewer’s imagination is free to fill in the blanks regarding the specifics of time, place, and narrative.

I thought my work might be fitting more into the Tonalist camp, so decided to consciously try out a “classic” Tonalist methodology, applying cooler, transparent oils (the favored medium of the great Tonalist masters) over a thin, warm underpainting.

But my efforts were an utter flop. I wiped off my canvas and returned to watercolor for my next painting.  It displayed more Tonalist characteristics, without my even trying, than the previous, conscious effort had.

"Twilight Flight," by Charlotte Mertz (8"x10" watercolor, #200703w)

“Twilight Flight,” by Charlotte Mertz
(8″x10″ watercolor, #200703w)

Frankly, I don’t really care, though, about what stylistic genre my work fits into. It is what it is, continually modified to suit the purposes and characteristics of each individual composition.

The point is to not worry about where my work fits into the stylistic continuum, but to focus on technique to create a painting that says what I want it to express, in a way that fits well with my working methods.  The composition should flow naturally without feeling or appearing forced.

Trying new techniques is always somewhat uncomfortable, since we’re pushing the envelope of our experience and confidence. But experimenting with technique is how we develop strategies to overcome artistic challenges. And every creative artwork, by its very definition, presents its own challenges and “problems” to solve. So every new piece is a bit (or a lot) intimidating to undertake.

The way each artist decides to address those issues, however, is what ultimately determines and establishes his or her unique painting style.  That individual style might or might not fall somewhere on the continuum within some acknowledged stylistic category or genre.  Who knows? Like Monet’s “Impression Sunrise,” its variances from the “norm” might be panned by critics yet prove to be trendsetting, leading the way into an entirely new mode of artistic expression.


Wednesday, July 1st, 2020

The question often arises, “How can I develop an artistic style?”  Perhaps the most difficult answer for a young artist to hear is that it develops on its own. Over time. With lots and lots of practice.  (Sorry, kids, but it doesn’t pay to fake it.)

"Red Chopsticks," by Charlotte Mertz  (8"x10" watercolor, #140208w)

“Red Chopsticks,” by Charlotte Mertz
(8″x10″ watercolor, #140208w)

The truth is that it has to do with the palette choices an artist typically makes, how we adjust colors, the way we handle our brushwork, the subjects we choose and the concepts that move us, the degree to which we include detail or suggestion, how realistic or abstract our compositions tend to be, how we handle edges and transitions, how we design our compositions, ….

These choices are made based on our understanding and experience at any given point in our artistic development. In the beginning we may rely entirely on the guidance of a teacher or our own creative instincts. The more experience we gain, the more readily we can base our choices on our own discoveries and preferences.

These kinds of choices are all among the many factors that contribute to what others come to recognize as our personal artistic style. We are less likely to recognize it as a “style” ourselves because it feels so natural to us. It seems too easy!

In fact, these style choices are usually not made through conscious decisions but by what feels good, comfortable, or natural to us and the way we handle our medium(s).

And yes, those behaviors and choices (whether conscious or unconscious) can and should change over time, as we learn, as our work matures, and as we gain confidence in the process.

We’re doing well when we begin to recognize similarities in our paintings, because these are clues about our developing personal style.

Yet we should never feel we can’t change things up just because it’s a common thread at the moment. Experimentation with variations of those commonalities is how our work continues to develop and mature.