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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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”.