Portfolio | Tonalism

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

The Cove At Dusk [1996], Oil, 40x48., Southwest Art
The Cove At Dusk [1996], Oil, 40×48.

When Tricia Berg moved from California to Palisade, CO, in 1987, she expected to find a painter’s paradise. She has not been disappointed. Palisade, a town of about 2,500 people, is nestled in the fertile Grand Valley, a farming area famous for its peaches, apricots, cherries, and pears. The Grand Mesa—one of the largest flat-topped mountains in the world—rises in the distance. This natural wonder is laced with 300 lakes and reservoirs. In the summer, its meadows are a riot of wildflowers; in the winter, snow blankets the evergreen forests.

Since 1992 Berg has been capturing the Grand Mesa’s breathtaking vistas in a series of 300 oil paintings she calls Quiet Places. “I feel like I’ve reached a place where I’m at peace with myself, so I’m painting very serene, tranquil scenes,” Berg says. Her soothing landscapes are usually set at dawn or dusk rather than in the harsher midday light. She is often called a tonalist, although she says that such restrictive labels make her uncomfortable.

Pond In March [1996], Oil, 30 x 30, Southwest Art
Pond In March [1996], Oil, 30 x 30

Before she moved, Berg was living in Laguna Beach, a picturesque coastal town with a thriving art community. The amount of traffic was steadily increasing, though, and by the late 1980s Berg began to feel that the journeys to the wilderness areas she was fond of painting were taking too long.

Although she knew she would appreciate Colorado’s wide open spaces, Berg wasn’t prepared for the transformation in her art that accompanied her move. First, she shifted from watercolor to oil, which she considers a natural evolution toward a more forgiving medium. “With watercolors, what you put down is what you get because the paints are so transparent,” Berg explains. “With oils, you can go over and over one area of the painting.”

Then came yet another metamorphosis as she decided to focus solely on landscapes instead of doing still-life and figurative work as well. “I had reached a time in my life when I wanted to stop experimenting and settle on one direction,” Berg says. “Painting landscapes has always come naturally to me.”

Autumn Leaves [1997], Oil 40 x40, Southwest Art
Autumn Leaves [1997], Oil 40 x40

Many mornings Berg rises at 5:30, packs her paints and her golden retriever Teddy into her blue Dodge pickup truck, and drives 40 minutes to the Grand Mesa where she paints studies for several hours. In the freezing winter weather she often draws inside her truck. Dawn is quiet in the wilderness—too early even for fishermen—and the water is as still and clear as glass.

By 9 a.m. Berg is usually ensconced in her studio in nearby Grand Junction, a city of 40,000 near the junction of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. The studio is located on the second floor of a historic building on Main Street. A sprawling 2,400-square-foot space with 18-foot ceilings, it was once a ballroom. These days, though, dancers have been replaced by easels that hold various works in progress. Generous windows on the south side reveal the craggy peaks of the Colorado National Monument; other windows look out on the Grand Mesa. Berg keeps a sleeping bag in one corner in case she wants to paint through the night. Teddy and Berg’s pet rabbit Linen often wile away the hours sleeping under her easels.

Early Winter's Glow [1998], Oil 37 x 60, Southwest Art
Early Winter’s Glow [1998], Oil 37 x 60

In the studio Berg often begins a new work from one of her smaller on-location studies of the Grand Mesa, although sometimes she works without a sketch. Either way, the studio is the place where she concentrates on the painting’s composition, laying down the important masses of the scene and leaving out unnecessary details. Once she is satisfied with the basic design, Berg works on connecting the abstract forms in a way that leads the viewer’s eye through the painting.

As she paints, Berg may pause to walk around the studio and view the work from a distance, pacing or settling into her paint-splattered, brown leather sofa. In the final stages she brings the painting together with a balance of color, texture, tonality, and atmosphere. “At that point, the painting takes on a life of its own until it’s finished,” Berg explains. To tone down a painting, she sometimes alters the colors by applying transparent glazes or using a “scumbling” technique—applying a thin layer of pigment with a brush or her fingers to dull the color and create a hazy quality.

Kalispell Lake [1996], Oil 20 x 30, Southwest Art
Kalispell Lake [1996], Oil 20 x 30

The underlying theme of Berg’s paintings is nature as a retreat. While she paints many Colorado scenes, Berg has also traveled throughout the United States and Europe looking for peaceful corners of the world. During the summer and fall she frequently treks to Maine and Massachusetts, painting the rocky coast, tiny coves, and towering trees that enclose the winding roads of New England. She likes the contrast of its compact, small-scale landscapes with the endless sky and massive mountains of the West. Berg says she enjoys painting all of the seasons, from the warm yellows of spring in the English countryside to the stark whites and deep greens of a Colorado landscape in winter.

Berg developed her love of nature early in life. Growing up in Oak Park, IL, a suburb of Chicago, she spent many weekends with her family at a cabin on Fox Lake near the Wisconsin border. In the summer she picked blueberries, climbed sand dunes, and swam in the lake’s crystal-clear waters. In the winter she went ice skating and fishing. “I started loving the landscape a long time ago, and I’ve always had a ‘thing’ for water,” Berg says. In fact, water is still an important element in her paintings.

Berg started drawing when she was 6 and had started painting by the time she was 10. Her father encouraged her, buying her first box of paints. As a child she won several local and national art contests. Berg went on to study graphic arts at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where she learned to admire everything from the exuberant brush strokes of van Gogh to the symphony of color and movement in Helen Franken- thaler’s work.

After she moved to California, Berg studied still-life painting with Joyce Pike and figure painting with Robert E. Wood. The greatest influence on her work, though, was Millard Sheets [1907-1989], whom she considers a mentor and an invaluable teacher. “He taught me a different way of looking at landscapes,” Berg says. She also recalls the legendary California artist telling his students to go outside and paint using 30 different shades of green. She hasn’t used green paint straight out of a tube since that assignment.

Other times Sheets would ask his students to list the things they thought they couldn’t paint, then send them out on a mission to paint them. “I couldn’t paint trees back then, so he made me paint trees until I fell over,” Berg says. “He made his students conquer their fears through practice and perseverance, and he gave us many encouraging words in a short period of time.” In 1985 Sheets awarded Berg first prize in a Bakersfield Museum of Art exhibit and two years later gave her a one-woman show at the museum—support she treasures.

Although she spent her time in California experimenting with different subject matter and media, Berg has since forged ahead in a single direction: painting the wilderness areas where she finds sanctuary and refuge. From somber gray days to late-afternoon sunsets, her paintings transport the viewer into a tranquil setting. “All of these beautiful areas have spoken to me in one way or another,” she says. “They have called to me to visit. Overwhelmed by their beauty, I try to capture their essence in my paintings. If I am successful, the viewer will find a quiet, serene place to retreat and appreciate the landscape that we all too often neglect.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Breckenridge Gallery, Breckenridge, CO; Howard/Mandville Galleries, Kirkland, WA; and Gardner Colby Gallery, Naples, FL, and Edgartown, MA.

Featured in “Portfolio: Tonalism” April 1997