Portfolio | Tonalism: Luminescent Landscapes

Morning Marsh II [1995], oil, 30 x 36. painting southwest art.
Morning Marsh II [1995], oil, 30 x 36.

By Susan Hallsten McGarry

It could be a reaction to the irreverence of 1960s Pop Art, to the resurgence of impressionistic techniques in the 1980s or to the fin-de-siecle introspection that comes with the approaching millennium. Whatever the inspiration, a growing interest in tonalist painting is attracting both artists and collectors to quiet moods and spiritual views of nature.

Witness the artworks pictured here. The artists who created them range in age from 34 to 56 (see biographies page 131). Like their tonalist forebears who worked on the West and East Coasts from 1880-1915, they capture diffused light that softens forms and obscures details, almost to abstraction. Following in the footsteps of artists such as George Inness [1825-1894] and Lowell Birge Harrison [1854-1929], they opt for gauzy, veiled images dominated by shadows or landscapes lit by uniform, unmodulated light. And like symbolist painters Ralph Blakelock [1847-1919] and Albert Pinkham Ryder [1847-1917], this mysterious light emanates more from emotion than from observation.

And God Created Fog, watercolor, 22 x 30. painting, southwest art.
And God Created Fog, watercolor, 22 x 30.

In such works one senses that the painting is less a window onto external realities and more a penetration into the soul of the artist. In these personalized places, fragments of nature evoke a poetic psychological state a place where a breath can be held for eternity or where a revelation lingers like the memory of a soft kiss.

Today’s tonalists share a love of ambiguity, especially found at dawn, dusk or in moonlight times when light is fugitive and color and form are unified by a dominant hue or tone. They are also passionate about luminosity, making their paintings seem to glow from some internal pearlescent light source.

Eschewing the grandiose epics of nature, today’s tonalists gravitate to flat, marshy landscapes, quiet waters, or gentle hilly snowscapes defined by rows of darkened trees. Signs of humankind disappear in the silence, and our imaginations fill in the void with touches of reverie or nostalgia.

Pear Celebration, monotype, 15 x 14.
Pear Celebration, monotype, 15 x 14.

Does the light symbolize a greater or higher force beyond the individual? Or does it represent the mysterious unknown that lingers in the hearts of us all?

The artists speak for themselves.

· Steven Lee Adams ·

“There are two sides to my work: In my on-location paintings I try to capture what is there, using all my skills to render a particular moment. In my poetic paintings, which are done in the studio, I interpret the same subjects, eliminating many of the narrative or visual clues that relate to physical existence and dealing primarily with those images and colors that relate to the emotional or spiritual aspect that lies beneath. I search for the intangible chord that strikes deep within my spiritual and emotional self, which is, in my opinion, the defining factor in all great works of art.”

· Catherine Anderson ·

“My paintings are statements about nature and my place in it. They are definitions of my pain, joy, hopes, fears and passions. I paint to convey peace and wonder—the experience and awareness one has as a child. That dreamy state relaxes and relieves and reveals itself through color, light and texture. I hope to take viewers into that magical place with me.”

The Grand Mesa, oil, 50 x 40. painting, southwest art.
The Grand Mesa, oil, 50 x 40.

· Carol Anthony ·

“Through my work I celebrate the journeys I have taken into the magic and presence of the unknown. Using symbols of interior rooms, eastern barns, pears, landscapes of western mountains and self-portraits, I have tried to disturb and explore the inner nature of mystery and dream, earth and stone. These works/poems/windows are the larger gestures of pilgrimage and solace … each mined from the reveries and surreality of the Ancient Moment.”

· Tricia Berg ·

“My present work reflects an interaction between nature and myself. I cannot improve nature, but I can rearrange it and put my inner spirit into it. My art is an accumulation of my life’s experiences—quiet, serene places into which I, and the observer, can retreat. By presenting nature as it is—without people, without litter, without pollution—perhaps we will preserve it because we realize how important it is to us and to future generations.”

· Connie Borup ·

At the Edge of the Watery Meadow, oil, 53 x 74. painting, southwest art.
At the Edge of the Watery Meadow, oil, 53 x 74.

“This work was inspired by a special place where I spend a lot of time. I take photos when I’m there, but then I transform reality into tones that convey luminosity and warmth. Although my paintings are large, I try to retain the intimacy of that personal place, as well as a rich painting surface that draws you into the multiple layers of opaque and transparent glazes I apply. Even within the narrow range of my restricted palette, I try to keep light in the color and enough variation in values to keep the painting from becoming dull.”

· Gordon Brown ·

“I first saw the work of George Inness at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and I immediately fell in love with its subtleties. The lighting effects that Albert Bierstadt achieved in his mountainous landscapes have also influenced the way I paint the western slope of the Rockies near my home in Palisade, CO. When I paint outdoors I try to capture exactly what I see; when I move into the studio, the landscape becomes a reflection of my changing moods.”

Plateau Canyon, oil, 44 x 40. paiting, southwest art.
Plateau Canyon, oil, 44 x 40.

· Russell Chatham ·

“In Montana the landscape is seen at great distances. It’s wide and open and tall. You’ve got to reduce it in a painting, telescope it. Unlike the rolling hills of California with their sensuous curves, the hills in Montana are angular, cold, distant, even hostile. Not everything in life can or should be explained. Part of every painting should be incomplete … to be completed in the mind of the viewer.”

· Lanford Monroe ·

“I grew up studying my father’s favorite tonalists: American landscapist George Inness and Swedish wildlife painter Bruno Liljefors. When he wasn’t illustrating, my father was also drawn to a tonalist palette, and I ended up following in his footsteps, preferring the subtleties of early morning and late evening. This work is the last in a series of four paintings that I did using the elements of elk and cedar. Although it is rare for me to work in a series, it’s fun, because by the end I’ve worked out the problems of the scene and can just play with the design.”

Summer Hayfields [1991], oil, 30 x 36. painting, southwest art.
Summer Hayfields [1991], oil, 30 x 36.

· Bjorn Rye ·

“Images are magic. When I’m painting well, I’m trying to cast a spell upon the viewer—the spell of quietude, of meaningful stillness—like the feeling you ultimately reach in meditation…. Death is the mother of beauty. A paradise where ripe fruit never falls, where night never comes, is no paradise at all. At some level all the beauty of the world stems from our knowledge that it’s transient. I started painting because I knew I was going to die. Rilke said, ‘There remains at last a tree on a hill to be looked at day after day,’ and what I think he meant is, ‘There remains at last only a tree on a hill—only the landscape itself.’”

· Tal Walton ·

“I believe in the Platonic concept that the idea of a place or an object supercedes actual reality. So when it comes to the landscape, while I’m inspired by actual places, I strive not to imitate them but to re-create the universal idea of landscape in time. Past, present and future are expressed not only by the vertical breaks in my paintings but also by the multiple transparent glazes that I apply over raw underpainting. I’m also drawn to the historical connotations of gilding, which add reverence and the sense of a higher cause to the simplicity of trees on a hillside.”

Winter Solstice, oil, 20 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Winter Solstice, oil, 20 x 30.

· Suzanne Wiggin ·

“I look toward nature as a source of the spiritual and sublime. Van Gogh described art as man added to nature. To paint is to be in the landscape, responding to the abounding forces, holding the memory of the place, trying to re-create its essence in a painting that flickers between an illusion of space and the surface of paint. I want my art to converse with paintings of the past, press toward the future and be timeless in its travel, with beauty as its beacon.”

· Michael Workman ·

“I believe that everything was created spiritually before it was created physically. I also believe that the world is unfinished and, in a way, we participate in its creation. I leave some areas of my paintings unorganized so that viewers can complete them, and like a poet, I try to put in just enough information to communicate where the painting is going while leaving room for the viewer to fill in the blanks in an individual way.”

Fall Sunset, oil, marble ground, gold leaf, 23 x 33. painting, southwest art.
Fall Sunset, oil, marble ground, gold leaf, 23 x 33.

Steven Lee Adams

Adams [UT 1962—living UT] was en-couraged to paint by his artist grandmother. In high school he studied with William Whitaker, then moved to Nevada where he studied with Lou Maestas. In 1983 Adams returned to Provo to study for two years at Utah Valley Community College, then at Brigham Young University from 1986-89. His work can be found at Kneeland Gallery, Sun Valley, ID.

Catherine Anderson

Anderson [IL 1947—living CA] grew up on a farm outside of Libertyville, IL. She went on to study at the American Academy of Art, Chicago, IL, the University of Cincinnati, OH, and the Academy of Art College, San Francisco, CA. She is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society and the California Watercolor Association. Her work may be seen at Howard Portnoy Gallerie, Carmel, CA; Breckenridge Galleries, CO; and Quast Galleries, Taos, NM.

Forward Storm, oil, 20 x 24. painting, southwest art.
Forward Storm, oil, 20 x 24.

Carol Anthony

Influenced by her father, an artist and cartoonist for the New Yorker, Anthony [NY 1943—living NM] received an AA from Stephens College, Columbia, MO, and a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, in 1966. With countless solo exhibitions all over the country, Anthony moved to Santa Fe in 1991. Her work can be seen at Evelyn Siegel Gallery, Dallas, TX.

Tricia Berg

Berg [IL 1952—living CO] studied under several California masters, including Robert E. Wood, Joyce Pike and Millard Sheets. For 16 years she lived in California, experimenting with all manner of subjects, techniques and media. Her current work reflects her move to Colorado in 1988. Her work can be seen at Breckenridge Galleries, CO; Upper Edge Gallery, Aspen, CO; and Mast Cove Galleries, Kennebunkport, ME.

Pastoral Repose, oil, 12 x 17. painting, southwest art.

Pastoral Repose, oil, 12 x 17.

Connie Borup

Borup [UT 1945—living UT] grew up in Kaysville, UT, the hometown of Laconte Stuart [b1891], a renowned tonalist painter with whom she studied. Borup received her BA (1967), BFA (1973) and MFA (1992) from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. For 20 years she taught art at the high-school level, and for the past five years she has taught painting and drawing at the University of Utah. Her work can be seen at Munson Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, UT; and Gail Severn Gallery, Ketchum, ID.

Gordon Brown

Brown [CO 1962—living CO] has studied with a number of artists, including Denver, CO, painter Quang Ho. He apprenticed with artist Shang Ding of the Beijing Central Art Academy. Shang especially influenced Brown’s underpainting techniques for capturing effervescent lighting effects. Brown’s work can be found at Breckenridge Galleries, CO; R. Paul Mooney Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ; and Jack Meier Gallery, Houston, TX.

Russell Chatham

Chatham [CA 1939—living MT] credits his grandfather, Swiss-Italian muralist Gottardo Piazzoni, as the reason he took up the brush—and adopted his tonalist approach to the landscape. Chatham began his art career in the film industry but moved to Park County, MT, in 1972. As a painter and author, Chatham is self-taught. His hundreds of articles and illustrations have been published in sporting publications, newspapers and specialty magazines, and his Clark City Press has published 28 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art. Chatham’s work can be found at Chatham Fine Art, Livingston, MT; Munson Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Anne Reed Gallery, Sun Valley, ID; and Moynihan Gallery, Jackson, WY.

Lanford Monroe

As a child, Monroe [CT 1950—living NM] lived in Connecticut, studying art with her father C.E. Monroe, an illustrator, and her mother Betty Monroe, a portraitist. Neighbors John Clymer and Bob Kuhn were also responsible for her early interest in art. Monroe took formal classes at the Ringling School of Art, Sarasota, FL, and lived for several years in South Dakota before returning to the Cumberland Mountains of Alabama. In 1990 she moved Taos, NM. Her work can be seen at Trailside Americana Fine Art Galleries, Jackson Hole, WY, Scottsdale, AZ, and Carmel, CA; Holland & Holland, New York, NY; and The Sporting Gallery, Middleburg, VA.

Bjorn Rye

Rye’s formative years were spent in Vernal, UT, and the nearby Uintah Mountains. Following high-school gradua- tion, Rye [CA 1942—living CA] lived on both coasts as well as in London and Munich, earning a BA from Columbia University and an MA from City College of New York. An author as well as an artist, he has published two novels and authored numerous articles, art criticism, film scripts and poetry. His work can be seen at Easton Gallery, Santa Barbera, CA, and Edith Caldwell, San Francisco, CA.

Tal Walton

Walton [1963 UT—living CO] grew up in rural northern Indiana and went on to earn his BFA in 1990 and his MFA in 1996 from Brigham Young University, UT, where he became interested in the processes of printmaking, gilding, sculpting and making furniture. He is currently building a home in Berthoud, just outside of Loveland, CO.  His work can be seen at Contemporary Southwest Galleries, Santa Fe, NM, and Martin-Harris Gallery, Jackson, WY.

Suzanne Wiggin

“I think it is vital to link with painters of the past, keeping an open dialogue with their work,” says Wiggin [GA 1962—living NM]. Wiggin moved to New Mexico at age 13 and began studying art with Taos painters Barbara Zaring and Francis Donald. She received her BA in 1985 from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, her MA from Utah State University, Logan, and her MFA in painting from Boston University, MA. Her work can be seen at Munson Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

Michael Workman

Workman [1959 UT—living UT] was 19 when he went on a two-year mission to Australia, then returned and attended Brigham Young University, where he received a MFA in 1992. His work can be seen at Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM, and Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in “Portfolio:Tonalism” April 1997