Project 2 Research Point: Odilon Redon and the atmospheric potential of tone

Important note: This blog post forms the reflective part of this research task. It accompanies research and notes on contemporary works recorded manually in a paper learning-log. Due to copyright law this log will not be posted on line. It will, however, be made available in electronic form to tutors for the purposes of assessment. 

Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was a French symbolist painter whose use of tone is particularly strong in his early (pre 1890) charcoal works. Redon’s ‘noirs‘ are a collection of visionary works in various shades of black. Maslen and Southern (2014) suggest that when a drawing is made, not only must the material nature of any objects be depicted but that the energy of the absorbed or reflected light that makes those objects visible must also be depicted. This is achieved by differing tonal values within the drawing of those objects. If this same principle is applied to the negative space around objects then in my mind the artist is creating ‘atmosphere’. Areas of white and pale tones can be perceived as having lots of energy whereas areas of dark, draw you in creating negative connotations, sucking the energy from you! Godfrey (1990) discusses black in drawing as ‘the colour of death, extinction, […..] and the void’. He suggests that by use of tone, negative spaces and the shapes within them ‘become charged: we are forced to stand back inadvertently.’ This I think is a wonderful description of the power of drawing to have an ‘atmosphere’.

In the case of Redon, his charcoal drawings certainly have an atmosphere associated with them but it is a dark, oppressive atmosphere. In his ‘Two Trees‘ the dark tones lead you along a path into the murk beyond. The inky black charcoal of ‘Christ‘ and ‘Spirit Forest‘ draws you in closer with the highly contrasted facial images moving out towards you in a ghostly fashion sending shivers down your spine. His hallucinogenic spider images ‘Crying Spider‘ and ‘Smiling Spider‘ have less of an atmospheric quality to the negative space of the drawings but it is the use of deep black tones for the spiders contrasted with the lighter background tones makes them quite sinister. It is this tonal contrast that makes ‘Eye Balloon‘ so powerful too, not allowing the viewer’s eye to drift away from the massive eyeball floating up into the sky. Even in Redon’s later colour paintings tone is very important at creating an atmosphere, usually as a result of contrasting objects in full light against a dark background as is the case in ‘Coquille‘.

Until completing this bit of research Redon and his work was unknown to me. I have found many of his images, especially the early charcoals to be fascinating in a slightly grotesque way. They are very powerful drawings indeed.

Godfrey, T. (1990). Drawing today. Phaidon Press Ltd: Oxford

Maslen, N. and Southern, J. (2014). Drawing projects: an exploration of the language of drawing. Black Dog Publishing: London

Project 2 Research Point: Odilon Redon and the atmospheric potential of tone

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