Tonal Expressionism

Everyone knows what Abstract Expressionism looks like: Emphatic gesture, with strong contrasts in colour, tone and texture. It has no reference beyond itself. Tonal Expressionism is different. It is built upon what is seen by the artist as well as the artist’s response to it. That is, it has a subject that exists beyond the canvas.

It is also a long way from Impressionism. Allow me to explain. In the 19th century after the invention of tube oil paints artists found that they could work in oil outdoors and produce finished paintings instead of having to work from sketches in the studio. Their work became looser and more immediate. They also had a much brighter range of new colours to work with. In order to control these effectively they turned to the colour theories developed by the tapestry weavers. Rather than mixing colour the weavers learned to put different clean and bright colours next to each other. These developed into the theories of simultaneous contrast and optical mixing.

The Impressionists following these theories chose not to mix colours on the palette but instead put small touches of pure colour next to each other. That is Impressionism. Working in front of the subject with touches of pure colour. It was Van Gogh who worked along side the Impressionists who restored gesture with his passionate mark making. His early work was monochromatic. It was only in his final years that he moved to pure colour. Even then he did not follow the Impressionist theories of colour. He used colour emotionally to match his brush gesture.

We see and understand landscape through tonal change based on aerial perspective. This understanding does not come through detail. Nor is absolute precision of drawing essential. If the tonal range and colour intensity are accurate the landscape painting will read correctly. This then leaves the brush gesture free to convey the artist’s feeling.

My plein air work on small panels necessarily has gesture. On the other hand I have felt for some time that my larger studio paintings were becoming too static. There is a temptation in larger pieces to include more and more detail. This slows the painting down. My aim over the next few months is to replace detail with painterly incident moderated through gesture. We will see how that works out.

Let me know what you think.

The painting is “The Road Goes Ever On…”  Oil on canvas, 30×30”