Artist Critique – Odilon Redon.

The French symbolist painter from the mid 19th century, Odilon Redon extensively made use of light and tone to emphasis the mood and atmosphere of his paintings
odin portrait

As in this self portrait the light is very hard, casting a shadow over the whole opposite side of his face. The painter hasn’t even brought out some highlights of the other eye giving the painting a rather mysterious, but not so sinister feel to it.

Redon had the ability to use contrast of light and dark to striking effect, even using the negative space to intensify and draw attention to certain parts of the painting, such as the shadow of the portrait  describes the mystery of the painter.

The obvious to emphasis an object would be to illuminate it. However many times we see Redon illuminating the subject from behind. This seems to heighten the dramatic atmosphere of the painting and leave the darkened areas to the imagination of the viewer such as in ‘Boat in the moonlight’ and ‘Roland at Roncesvalles.’

Even though the main subjects are shrouded in shadow, it is the silhouette that impacts the viewer more striking, while leaving the detail to the viewer who is left to finish the picture off with their own imagination, inviting the viewer to almost become a participant in the painting.


Using negative space to emphasis themes and ideas is not the only way Redon used sharp opposition in tone to create dramatic effect. Heavy contrast is also evident, such as in ‘The Reader.’ All the attention is cast onto the old mans head and face which is exactly were all the energy and attention would be coming from, so Redon has illuminated only the most important parts of the scene, the book, the face, and the mans forehead. An amazing effect solely with the use of strong contrasting shifts of tone.


villa next door

‘The Villa Next Door’ is a great example of the use of tone to emphasis ideas as well as parts of the painting. Here the emphasis is clearly on the naked torso, however the presence of the skeleton behind her is also introduced by the light in opposition of the velvet black background. Maybe here he is linking the positive life of the woman with the light, and the negative death of the skeleton with the black.



Redon often based his art on real objects and things, on reality. However he would often then take them out of context with his imagination, or imaginary. This apparent contradiction is possibly why he is draw to the contrast in light and dark. His works seem to have a contradictory sense to them, “My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They place us as does music in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”


Redon’s style seems to symbolise the whole concept of contrast, light and dark, awake and asleep, good and evil, therefore his abrupt tonal changes in light and dark seem to communicate his feelings and ideas perfectly. “The logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.

Other artists that I came across who use light and tone to emphasis and dramatise their paintings are Jack Vettreano, who’s high contrast and bold colours add extra impact to his paintings. He also uses the lighting from the background in these two beach scenes.

Also apparent in a lot of Sir Luke Fildes’s work, especially to create tension in the atmosphere, or to draw attention to a certain subject.



The use of tone can greatly influence the mood and interpenetration of a drawing. The artist having complete control over what he wants to emphasis in the picture, and ultimately how the viewer feels and sees the picture.

It can be used to dramatic effect with sharp, harsh tonal changes, or soft grades to create multiple effects. I’m very interested in the command of tonal changes and use of light direction and will be looking further into it with experiments of my own.


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