Research point: Odilon Redon: Use of tone


We are asked to consider a charcoal drawing by Odilon Redon Two Trees, c.1875 (Fig. 1.) and to note the artist’s expressive use of tone – blocks of dark colour in sharp contrast to expanses of light, then the smaller details, lines and spots that pull the image together as an ambient scene.

We are also tasked with finding further work by the artist and discussing the atmospheric potential of tone in our blogs.

Fig. 1. Odilon Redon, Two Trees, c. 1875 (charcoal on paper)

Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916)

Odilon Redon was a French symbolist painter and printmaker.  In the introduction to Redon’s graphic works Alfred Werner (Werner, 2005: XI) talk’s about the artist’s use of ‘deep sonorous blacks’ and refers to him as the ‘Prince of Shadows’.  Indeed, in a large number of his earlier works Redon used dramatic contrasts in tone, mainly in black and white.  It is this period that I looked at to find further works.

The use of contrasting tones in Two Trees (Fig. 1.) does indeed bring to mind some nocturnal, dark fairy tale.  The trees with their sinewy marks and shapes look as if they are leaning together to whisper in conspiracy; plotting to draw the unwary into the gloomy depths of the forest.

Fig. 2. Etching. 1886. Edition of 20 copies. 175 x 119 mm.

In an even darker and tale, Cane and Abel (Fig. 2.), Redon dramatises the fratricide – again with the very darkest of darks.  The faces of both protagonist and victim blacked-out, unseen: hiding fear, envy, and anger. 

Tone and atmosphere

Tone in a drawing or painting can be used in different ways.  It can be used to describe the shape or depth (3D) of an object by indicating how light appears to fall on that object; or it can be used to evoke an atmosphere or mood. 

Redon does use tone to describe shape, but he is mostly concerned with mood or atmosphere – hence the use of the darkest darks.  It’s not just the use of black, it’s the large amount of it he uses.  Not only dark and light but the absence of colour: ‘daylight alone allows us to see colour’ (Gibson, 1992:77).  Shadows are exaggerated, over-dramatised where in a naturalistic depiction they are more gradual.  With Redon they are the stuff of dreams – and dark ones at that.

Other artists

The use of strong black and white contrasts to convey a sombre or dramatic atmosphere or effect has been used by many other artists and in other media.  Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt (the latter admired by Redon (Gibson, 1992:43)) are all known for their use of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) to bring their figures to life. 

Fig. 3.  Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (Caravaggio), Madrid. c. 1609. Oil on canvas 116 cm × 140 cm (46 in × 55 in) Location: Palacio Real de Madrid Image source: Wikipedia.

Caravaggio is famed, in particular, for using chiaroscuro to emphasise the drama in intense scenes (Fig. 3.), and this approach even seems to be a reflection of his ‘tragic and desperate life’ which was ‘reflected in the extreme power of his work, filled with violence, tragedy, ineluctable fate and despair.’ (Strinati, 2010:21)

Fig. 4.  Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. Tate website.

Cornelia Parker (Fig. 4.) uses darks and shadows to dramatic effect in her sculpture of an exploded garden shed (Tate website) – recalling the violence of an explosion.  If the sculpture were lit differently, without such deep shadows being cast, it might portray a different feeling – even comic, like a cartoon explosion.

David Hockney (Hockney, 2016:21) talks about the use of shadows in film noir to create a dramatic atmosphere.  In Figure. 5., a still from The Maltese Falcon (1941), he opines that ‘the shadow is more powerful, and sinister, than the actor himself.’  I agree.

Fig. 5.

Also, at a more prosaic level, when I look back at my own exercises on expression, the things with the darkest and strongest marks were “anger”.






Project 2: Exercise 4: Shadows and reflected light

Two pewter jugs. Charcoal. Paper. 20″ X 16″.

I like working with charcoal. My favourite sticks are the square ones so that you can use the edges for sharp lines. I used watercolour paper for this Exercise because it was the only paper I had with some tooth. I think it was too toothy though as I found rubbing out highlights very difficult – so I have not achieved very sharp highlights. I also tried to use chalk as a highlight but it didn’t work well. Next time for highlights I will use a paper with less tooth, and/or leave the highlighted areas intact rather than rubbing out

I also think I have overworked this a bit. There were so many highlights and marks, I think it would have been better to select the main ones. The ellipse at the top of the left had jug is wrong, but it was difficult to adjust it. I am more please with the jug on the right. And I like the modelling on the left hand jug’s handle.

I blended some of the marks with a cotton bud and my finger, but I didn’t want to overdo it and make it too smudgy. Just blended where I wanted a darker highlight -achieved when the charcoal is pressed into the paper.

This was lit from the left with a lamp but there was also ambient light from the windows in front and behind me.

Project 2: Exercise 3: Creating shadow using lines and marks

Review of exercises below  It was quite difficult to get the light right for these.  I have a very bright spotlight and it casts very dark shadows in a dimly lit room (see Exercise 2 result) which gives very sharp shadows.  So I moved the light source further away to allow a more subtle effect.  I still didn’t find it easy to distinguish between primary and secondary light sources as they are were very subtle.  But the exercises did re-inforce my understanding of how carefully you need to look at thing, not only form but tones.

For the second part of the exercise (four objects) I tried to avoid initial drawings of the objects and aimed to define them by tone alone – much more difficult than it sounds, but it did really make me look at the differences in tones between the object and it’s background.

Project 2: Exercise 1: Groups of Objects

I had put this off so long as I was nervous to start. But then I decided I was going to set myself a day (today) and a time limit for doing it (half an hour). I determined that as this was a sketch to be “loosely described” I would only spend half an hour on it maximum and that I would present it without any alteration/rubbing out. So here it is!

Project 2: Exercise 1: Group of Objects.

I used A2 sugar paper and hard charcoal.  I quartered off the paper (lines left in) to try and get the right proportions and relationships between the objects.  I used an easel for this as I was then more easily able to look down on the objects and to draw more loosely.


Squaring off the paper worked to an extent but I still under-estimated the size of some of the objects e.g. the box at the back I had to make much wider than I originally thought. I can see that some of the perspectives are off (box, front, right-hand side) and that the ellipses could be better (particularly the can front left), but I like the marks I have made on the soft cloth and am please with the looseness and shape of the tin front right.  I should probably have attempted a wider variety of marks to indicate contents. Could have filled the paper with the image more too.

And another go


While I had the objects out I decided to try out another size/paper/media combination. This time A3 on newspaper with ink and oil pastel. And it was messy!  I used a stick for the ink line.  I glued the newspaper to a thicker base layer of paper;  left off the images as I found them too distracting; and did a light wash of gouache to seal the paper and provide tooth.  I did this a few days ago to allow it to dry.


Using the newspaper print is interesting and gives the background texture, but if this was a final piece I would think through more about how the images link. The ink gives some nice lines but I need to practise more to get better control.

Project 1: Exercise 2: Experimenting with Texture


Depicting texture

Is texture what something feels like, or what it looks like, or both? Or neither?

I found this more difficult than I thought I would.  I started off by doing a really detailed drawing of some woven cloth.  When I finished it I realised that it isn’t enough to try and copy the lines to indicate texture, you also need to give an idea of tone, so that depth is portrayed.  Although I did achieve some tone by varying the lines and spaces, it is quite subtle.

But then I thought, well it isn’t just line and tone, it’s also about how matt or shiny the image appears.  Trying to show the texture of velvet was almost impossible.  I ended up with a smudgy cloudiness, which I quite like, but it doesn’t convince as velvet. But it does look soft though I think.

I also came to appreciate that texture isn’t about colour.  My kale drawing was looking quite good with just black and grey, but then I felt the need to add green- because kale is green! It added nothing to the idea of the texture though. 

And then trying to depict the surface of a pear caused me some consternation.  It feels smooth, but it looks speckled.  Is my depiction showing texture, or just colour? Just colour I think – poor choice of subject. 


I thought I could give my brain a rest when it came to frottage.  I put a piece of paper over something and scribbled, and achieved some nice effects.  Job done.  Or so I thought.


But what paper to use? What medium?  Both needed to be soft enough to make any varied impression, but robust enough to take pressure.  And the frottage subject needed to have enough relief to make any distinguishable marks. 

I used willow charcoal (tricky, messy, too thin); charcoal pencil (OK but not broad enough) and water-soluble wax pastel.  The latter was the easiest to use and, I think, gave the best consistent effects.  Which is good if that’s what you want but the randomness of other materials can be an asset too. 


If I was to do this again I would use monochrome and not be distracted by colour.  This is something I can practise in my sketchbook.

Careful consideration of paper and medium/media is essential.

I will also try mono-printing over drawings to experiment with texture.   

Project 1 Exercise 1 Experimenting with expressive lines and marks

I started with anger on this one as I thought it would be better to end calm rather than in a rage.  Getting in the mood wasn’t that difficult as I have had a few things on my mind recently.


I use charcoal (top left); ink and sharpened stick (top right); fine pen (bottom left); and Sharpie (bottom right).

I wrote down my thoughts immediately after each exercise in case the mood and the thoughts wore off.

Feeling angry made me use a hard pressure on the materials/paper,  with concentrated patches of pressure then “angry outbursts” from the centre.  I even held the drawing materials differently – the charcoal in my fist rather than my fingers.  I was surprised that the end effects did not seem to reflect the energy I put into each.  The pen was the most satisfying physically and I had a good old scribble with lots of pressure (nearly went through the paper), but visually I don’t think it is as effective as conveying anger as the stick and ink drawing, which is much darker and concentrated even though I didn’t have to use as much pressure.  I didn’t like the Sharpie much as there wasn’t much line variation, and I would have wrecked the drawing point if I had put too much pressure on.

Then I tried calm. I must admit I did have to take a break after “anger” in order to calm myself down.  It didn’t take too long, so I couldn’t have been that angry.


Calm was a lovely experience.  I used charcoal (top left); pastel stick (top right); ink and stick (bottom left); graphic line pen (bottom right).

Using much lighter, but firm, pressure the strokes were flowing and smooth, the lines I wanted to draw were mostly curves and circles.  The graphic line pen took to the paper very well and helped with the sensation of flow.  The stick and ink less so (though I do like the outcome).  I felt very calm afterwards – could have done this exercise longer.

Oh Joy!


In this exercise I used oil pastel (top left); graphite pencil B (top right); willow charcoal (bottom left); stick and ink (bottom right).

I used a lighter pressure and quicker movements than “calm “. I felt the need to lift everything upwards, swirling and twirling to a joyful crescendo.  The ordinary graphite pencil seemed to be best suited to this end.  The stick and ink too difficult to control and a bit clumpy (nice marks though). Tra-la-la.

Then I thought I would give boredom a bash.


In these drawings I used ink and stick (top left); Sharpie (top right); charcoal stick (bottom left); ordinary office pen for doodling (bottom right).

Casting aside my joyfulness I tried to remember what it was like when I was in a boring meeting at work.  It came flooding back.  Starting with interest, but tailing off as things went on too long. In three of the drawing I tried to depict this.

I like a lot of the marks but they look far too interesting to convey boredom I think.  The doodles are the nearest – I know some of the images are objective (we are told not to do this), but they are illustrative of the activity rather than the subject – and the fact that I was too bored of doodling to fill the page says a lot too I think.

Exercise 1 Warm-up – temporary drawings

How not to clean a bath

I started by squeezing and dropping washing up liquid and window cleaner in the bath.  I must admit even at this stage I was thinking about colour and composition!  Probably not the free-wheeling approach required, but I am on a learning curve.  I noticed the way that the different colours and strengths of liquids mixed together to make pleasing patterns.  And how, as much as I aimed to compose, they were quite happy to do their own thing.  Then I aimed to wash away the “composition” by flushing it with water – bit like the tide coming in on a beach.  This changed the shapes and patterns in ways I could not control.  At the end I washed everything away with water, leaving a very clean bath.

Curry tonight?

I tastefully arranged a selection of kitchen spices and condiments on a blank sheet of paper.  Again, I was controlled in my approach, thinking of making pleasing patterns rather than just throwing them randomly, and selecting different size grains and some brighter colour in the chilli seeds.  I then bunched them all together in the middle of the sheet of paper and took a closer photo which showed the beautiful textures and shapes of the individual elements more clearly. 

Where the wind blows

I then decided to record something I couldn’t control – the clouds.  It was a fairly windy day and I took a time-lapse video of the changing cloud patterns dancing across the early autumn sky.  They were a bit annoying as they kept sliding out of shot, but I guess that’s what you get with randomness.  They were also very beautiful.


  • I need to work on my playful side, without expecting any particular results – allowing “happy accidents” to occur.
  • Cropping, or going closer to a subject can give some interesting results.
  • Nature is wonderfully random – I will aim to embrace that.

These exercises on temporary drawing also reminded me of the ephemeral nature of an artwork I came across recently (before I started this course) at Tate Britain: Conceptual Art in Britain 1964–1979, which ended in August 2016.  Roelof LOUW’s Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) (1967), was a pile of ordinary oranges, originally arranged in a pyramid (it was much depleted by the time I saw it).  You were invited to take an orange away with you (not eating it in the gallery), thus eventually diminishing the art work to nothing.  Utilitarian as ever, I used mine in a jug of Pimms for our street BBQ: the most artistic Pimms ever in my view.