Posted in Art and Artists, Coursework, Part 1, Research & Reflection

Odilon Redon’s tonal drawings

A quick Google Search ( on Odilon and his Noirs (the name he uses for his tonal drawings) quickly brings a wealth of information. This can be further elaborated by wikipedia: 

Other student’s thoughts

Some of these are from other OCA Drawing 1 students, some of which I have read through.  In 2013, for example, Pauline Johnstone wrote the following: This is fairly light, but covers some of the basic information. The following is more in-depth:

The Noirs Investigation

I found the following article on his Noirs, however, more useful:

A Technical Investigation of Odilon Redon’s Pastels and Noirs, Stratis H.; available here:

bp14-08dThis article is particularly useful because it provides information on how he produced much of his work, and provides some strong reference images of key work. I found “Fig. 4. Landscape, 1868” particularly atmospheric. The eye is immediately drawn to the bright spot in the middle (representing the sun coming through clouds), and hence outwards to the tree and landscape as a whole. The darkness of the majority of the landscape contrasts with bright centre. Only on further observation do details of the composition start to become evident. This is especially true of the two figures only slightly off centre from the image.

bp14-08iThe next image from the article I would like to comment on is “Fig. 9.Salome, c. 1893” This image is primarily figurative, but has a dark subject to match the dark tonal range. The article asserts that the ghostly second figure was added at a later date from the main composition, which made the composition as a whole much more ambiguous. I would suggest that the addition of the second figure also helps build a mystical atmosphere in the image as a whole. This ghostly aspect to the image is built by having a much reduced tonal range for the ghost as compared to the main subject. This approach is similar to the approach for building a reflection.

bp14-08fIn essence, therefore, much of Odilon’s building of atmosphere within his Noirs relies on using contracts to pull the observers eye to a particular part of the image. The eye will then (more slowly) range towards the rest of the image. In “Fig. 6. Figure Holding a Winged Head, c. 1876.”, for example, it is the head in front of the bright moon which initially grabs attention. This comes from the size of the head and its contrast with the moon. The eye then leads to the figure holding the head, and eventually the rest of the scene.

Two Trees

This pulls me back to the study image of two trees. (A reasonable copy of it can be found here:, which provided the image above and the featured image.) For this image, my eye is pulled to the big bright patch on the right hand tree. The flow was then to the left tree and down to the floor. With further consideration other aspects of the image come to the fore. I hesitate to draw firm conclusions on intention and meaning, but will pose questions to indicate possibilities instead:

  • Are the trees intended to invoke figures, possibly interacting?
  • The tonal aspect of the composition seems to draw attention to the closeness of the trees. Does the near-touching quality invoke some form of intimacy?
    (The following comment isn’t uncommon “It looks as if the one tree is leaning in to kiss the other. They have been side by side their whole lives.”, from
  • The bark seems to be drawn to emphasise a sweeping quality on the left hand tree, and a vertical form the right hand tree. Was this to emphasise the possibilities of what might lie in the path between and behind them?

I suspect the answer to such questions would lie in any text that accompanied the image. My own viewpoint (at the moment) is that the trees were probably intended to be Anthropomorphic and represent the left tree leaning in to kiss the right tree, with an arm going back to create a formal pose. It is consistent with an general theme of much of his work, and comes over too strongly to be a coincidence.


Odilon Redon uses light and dark regions to pull the eye to the subject as part of the major compositional elements. The overall tone of the composition builds the atmosphere (i.e. dark and moody et al), and his use of marks extends this and highlights interesting areas in the subjects of the composition. Regions of interest are sometimes elaborated with detail and sometime not. This was a major element of his career and he can be said to have mastered it over time. The Noirs aren’t the only aspect of his career, but they are definitely a major element.

So, What have I learnt?

There are the following main areas of learning for me from this research point:

  1. Composition: This is an area that I am beginning to consider in somewhat more detail, and Odilon’s compositional elements show through strongly in his use of tone.
  2. Overall tone for atmosphere: The match of the overall tone and tonal of the individual forms is part of the major atmosphere of an image. I’m beginning to understand why a “Tonal study” would add value as part of a set of preparatory drawings in support of this.
  3. Detail and atmosphere: The landscape leads me to consider how the details of an image help to build atmosphere as well as meaning.

Note on images used

The images used in the article are derived from the URL’s provided within the article as a whole. In the Noirs section the images are from, whereas the two trees images are from

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