Back to article index

Pre-existent tonality

Just as the day, the light, is pre-existent to all colours, and marks them with its intensity, so the coloured harmonies of the painter must be commanded by a tonality that is pre-existent to them.  Baudelaire reproached the young colourists of his time with lacking melody.  Those of today lack tonality.  They paint directly on the white canvas regardless of any intentions they may have as to the general colouring of the final work.  In their studios these artists will talk about the 'dominant', or the 'dominants', but, truth to tell, all they mean is a simple emphasis put upon a particular colour, an accent that is more lively, more marked, in a harmony that is relatively understated and restrained.  They do not cause anything to dominate at all.  And that is what makes the exhibitions of the present day so monotonous, as painters place a certain number of their works one beside the other.  The colour relations may vary, certain tones may be preponderant, but this is not enough to stimulate the eye, which looks at them, but which cannot find the support that it needs if it is to orientate itself for the beginning of its journey through the painting.  

This neglect of the tonality, which ought to have been taken up before all else - this forgetfulness of the need immediately to define the colour of the day in every painting - is, clearly, a consequence of the Humanist substitution of the subject for the object, of the spectacle for the painting.  Most of those pictures which claim to be 'without a subject' remain nonetheless subjected to the classical mode they reject by virtue of the mere fact that the artists have not known where to begin.  Whatever they might claim to the contrary, their dominant is still, actually, the subject,.  And, paradoxical as it might seem at first, we can even see, on reflection, that they are much more under the rule of the 'subject', in its disguised appearance, than  the great masters of the Renaissance and afterwards ever were.  The latter at least knew the basic foundations of their craft.  In fact, what is called the 'underpainting' of a picture is, in a way that has become, more or less, debased, simply the primary affirmation of the tonality which will support what is particular to the drawing and to the colour, and will situate them in the right, appropriately chosen, environment.  

I will go further and say that, though the living nature and traditional character, passed on from one generation to the next, have been lost, the persistence of this elementary necessity was, nonetheless, still to be seen only very recently in the pseudo-teaching of the official academies of fine art, where the preparation of the picture with a monochrome sketch was imposed, generally done in a conventional tone, using bitumen, or other materials of the same sort.  In spite of the devastating results to which these proceedings gave rise - whether due to the materials or to the way in which they were employed - it would have been better to have asked from what they were a deviation, rather than to be content with rejecting them purely and simply, and painting haphazardly on a canvas primed with any old tone or material supplied by the market.  

What, then, is the good of this 'sensibility' whose primacy over everything else is continually being vaunted, when the painters are themselves so insensitive to what, obviously, is the factor that determines the whole field of the series of resonances in which they are called upon to work - the initial tonality which is the authority that ought, clearly and consciously, to be acknowledged: the tonality, which is the qualification, in colour and in intensity, of the light of day in which the action of the painter's eye is to be made manifest.  

That, sometimes, the painter may use the white support - that is perfectly legitimate, so long as he knows that this is an extreme tonality, which he must then maintain throughout the whole work.  It is not legitimate if he does not know this, and if he imposes on it colour harmonies that do not suit it; that is to say when, at the end of his labours, he has realised, with greater or lesser competence, a general tonality which bears no relation to that white tonality which was the starting point for his journey.  Oil painting has, more than any other kind of painting, proved favourable to the aberration of which I speak.  The worker in pastels is almost obliged to rely on a particular tonality before he starts.  The watercolourist - though he is justified in using the white sheet of paper because of the speed with which he works, and because of the transparencies which are the charm of his medium, may equally well need to fix the initial tonality when he comes to doing more considered works.  For painting in gouache, the tonality is indispensable, and is imposed of its own accord; it is what is called the base [fond].  

If the painter who uses oil colours would begin by deciding the tonality of the work he is undertaking, he would, already, have shown that the rudiments of his craft were not entirely unknown to him.  But who, today, can be persuaded that an artist needs to know his craft?  Everyone paints, and everyone knows that this has nothing to do with the practice of a craft, but rather with sensitivity and personality, and that the stranger the appearance that is produced by this sensitivity and this personality, the closer they have come to genius.  The consequences of not giving the work its tonality at the right moment, at the very beginning, can be seen among artists of value, and this only makes them all the more regrettable.  They buy their canvasses in any old place, and throw themselves with gay abandon on to the whitish coating that seems to them to have no importance; but, because they have an eye that really is, in itself, fine and sensitive, they are careful not to push the first colour harmonies very far, they are so fearful of diminishing the quality of this initial white by being more affirmative.  And so, what has not been covered over, but what, at the same time, does not belong to us, since it has been done by the worker who has whitewashed metres of canvas without giving a thought as to what was to be painted over it - this remains in the state in which it was found, and continues to play a role, intuitively and obscurely.  We have no right either to conjure it away or, even less so, to ignore it.  There is in all this a lack of respect for oneself which is all the more serious if one possesses a real talent which would have been able to manifest itself better through respect for the work.  And I say nothing of the quality of the priming itself, which, two or three years later, cracks, peels away, turns yellow.  

The tonality is, then, the first manifestation of the painting.  It is the authority that determines the whole of the rest of the work.  It is through this initial tonality that the colour, or colours, which will be placed on the canvas whose day is thus defined, will acquire their real significance.  The eye will be the master workman, and sensitivity will be allowed to act in the way that is most appropriate.  Otherwise, what role could it have to play, and to what could it be sensitive, if the environment proper to its activity is denied it?  This is all the more necessary, and all the more obvious, if the subject has been rejected in favour of the object - painting, whose resources we must get to know.  

If, without even being aware of the fact, we are always thinking about the subject, and the subject is always coming back, camouflaged, then we can continue to live in blessed ignorance of these resources.  But when we have come back truly to the object, then this ignorance becomes intolerable.  It is necessary at all costs that it should be put to an end so that it can give way to knowledge.  What has previously been said about drawing realises its full value with colour.  Painting is a total object.