By William Carter

Photographer, Author, Jazz Musician

Tone in Art — and in Life

with 7 comments


Essential Dimensions

Sight, by William Carter, 1995

“Sight,” by William Carter, 1995

Women are natural masters of tone.  Their voices are extensions of their bodies and feelings – from cooing and whispering to babies, to the murmurs and cries of love making, to the exactingly regulated interview or phone voice of a business professional, to the bark of a drill sergeant or the yell of a basketball coach, to the whining shared grievances and inebriated hilarity of girls night out, to the plaintive pain of a close-miked blues singer, to the glass-shattering beltings of an old Broadway pro, to the moans of mourners the world over…  Men have no equivalent for such emotional precision.  (We do have other advantages.)

"Violante", by Titian, circa 1514 (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum

“Violante”, by Titian, circa 1514 (Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum

Tone is as fundamental to art as it is to life.  It is about relationships.  It is about attitudes.  It has a billion nuances.  Tone subverts speech.  It is pre-literate: dogs, like newborn infants, get the message.  Like breathing and heartbeat, tone springs from sources preceding the analytical brain.

Each scrap of civilization is permeated by tonalities. And each separate civilization has its own dominant tone.  Choosing a tone, we can actually choose what sort of civilization we wish to live in — what sort of civilization we are creating, second by second, from the ground up (actually, from the underground up).

Tone is interwoven with the materials and techniques peculiar to each craft, each art.  The sounds of musical instruments are analogous to those of the human voice — bestowing limitless expressive possibilities.  Musical fundamentals – harmony, melody and rhythm — open into endless variations of emotion, attitude, relationship: carriers of thought and feeling, from sudden joy to the wisp of  a half-forgotten memory.  Essential to this conversation is the artist’s sensitivity to the ears of his listeners. Refined artistry implies respect for people’s receptive capacities.

And tone is interactive.  New Orleans jazz derived from street processions before it moved indoors to dance halls. The early jazzmen and their listeners were conditioned by both.  At certain events one early bandleader is said to have occasionally surprised everyone by shouting “Feet!” – an instruction to his players to suddenly cut the volume so far they could actually hear the shuffling feet of the dancers.

"Flora", by Titian, 1515-1520 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

“Flora,” by Titian, 1515-1520 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)

Tone is crucial in writing.  The element hardest to teach, it remains after everything else has been fixed.  After each essay has been structured, each meaning parsed, each meaning clarified, the voice of the author, and his fictional characters, is what finally counts.  It is what we hear below the surface of language — what we ultimately care about in a person or a book.  The off-putting snarl, the simmering poetic glow, the endearing humor: tone is the attitude of the speaker toward his listeners and himself.

Tone is the light in the eye: the energy radiating from a person – what we really take away from an encounter.

Representations of the human face or body, in all the visual media, include great examples of tonal artistry — translating the invisible into the visible.  Titian painted many scenes from classical myths involving nudes; many sacred scenes in the Christian tradition, involving more discreet clothing; and many portraits.  His women often present a thoroughly mixed message: their neutral stare, the amount and distribution of skin revealed, and the sumptuous coloration and warm compositions, combine to make his subjects appear, at once, as holy as the Virgin and as sensual and shapely as a Venetian courtesan.  Rather than presenting these as opposites, he presents, at least in some cases, a mixed message.  As important as what they do or do not reveal of their breasts is the care the artist gives to the sumptuous fabrics and delicate lacework around or over the chests, arms and bodies.

"The Penitent Magdalen," by Titian, circa 1533 (Florence, Galleria Palatina)

“The Penitent Magdalen,” by Titian, circa 1533 (Florence, Galleria Palatina)

For me, Titian is using all his matchless talent and vast technical means to express the multi-layered, multi-valent wonder that is Woman.  Hiding while revealing, Titian enrolls us in the mystery, leaving it to us to make what we will of his women’s inscrutable faces.  This great Renaissance painter stood astride two intersecting epochs — the religious and the classical.  He was trained in the old, tightly restrained, exacting tempura technique; yet he pioneered the new, freer, emotionally expressive medium of oil and impasto on canvas. Such dualities fused to inform his work, but did not determine his vision.   Whoever happened to be sitting for him, in whatever moods, and whatever myths and fashions might have shaped the story telling, what counts for us, five centuries hence, is the look of the work – an aura of person-hood that confounds interpretation: a nobility of tone emanating to us from the canvas,  delivered to us out of the artist’s own being.

In photography, especially of people, whether clothed or unclothed, the word “tone” also applies to technical choices involving lighting, contrast, paper color, etc.  Such choices are necessary but not sufficient means en route to the work’s larger tone and overtones.  The attitude and intent of the photographer affect his choices of dramatic stage lighting vs. soft shadowless light – deep shadows for striking layouts in the magazine era, for instance, vs. subtle grey-scale values for intimate personal portraiture.  Layers of over-civilized European irony permeate the tough commercial nudes of glitterati like Helmut Newton or  Karl Lagerfeld.  Whereas the nudes of  gentle humanists, alive in a gentler age, such as Imogene Cunningham or Paul Strand, are all about tenderness.

How we see is who we are.  Inevitably, our tone, our voice,  is a projection of our inner state — our inner self.

Megan

“Megan,” by William Carter, 2006

Copyright statement: William Carter papers, © Stanford University Libraries. Click here for a detailed usage guide.

Advertisements

Written by bywilliamcarter

July 6, 2015 at 12:00 pm

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] — Venetians like Titian, for instance — combined both skills in highly creative ways.  (See my earlier post, “Tone in Art — and in Life.”) So I’m always pleased to hear of today’s art schools continuing to teach the older […]

    Like

  2. […] — Venetians like Titian, for instance — combined both skills in highly creative ways.  (See my earlier post, “Tone in Art — and in Life.”) So I’m always pleased to hear of today’s art schools continuing to teach the older […]

    Like

  3. Thank you for your genius descriptions and posting of “Sight” ’95. Your photographs are amazing and capture your creativity
    “How we see is who we are”…so true

    Like

    Tina

    October 1, 2011 at 4:11 am

  4. Thank you, Bill, for this art–life–lesson on the mystery of tone. Tone grows out of a bent or turn of mind. It reflects an inclination, a tendency, drawing out an emotion from a viewer/reader/listener, precisely those things we can’t measure. No technical expertise alone can conjure it.

    I’m interested in Titian’s Penitent Magdalen.” You speak about “lacework” and “fabrics” over chests, arms and bodies.” I see something even more tonal: her own luxurious reddish-brown hair wrapped around herself and held tightly in both hands to cover her body as she looks up in–awe? shame? regret? Yet, she is not truly covered by the lacework of hair, through her breasts do not strike the viewer as “sexy.” Tone, it seems, also establishes the attitude of the artist toward his subject, thereby helping the viewer to “read” the tone of penitence as the artist sees it.

    I’m reminded of a quote by Joseph Conrad here: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, above all, to make you see. That-and no more, and it is everything.” Yes, painters, photographers, musicians all try to reach mystery. Gabriele

    Like

    Gabriele

    September 30, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    • Hi Gabriele

      I don’t think I ever thanked you for your thoughtful reply to my “tone” blog. The Conrad quote is most apropo. Titian is hard to survey in US museums, but there are (or were) some good ones on in SF at the DeYoung as part of the 16th C Vienna exhibit.

      Bill

      Like

      William Carter

      February 17, 2012 at 5:56 pm

  5. I don’t even have the words to describe the genius description.
    I am a photographer who is a lover of life. I am discovering
    My tone in my photographs are full of emotion …
    That is what I am most drawn to.
    Loved your description “How we see is who we are”
    So true…
    The trick is getting the camera to cooperate with my eye.
    The camera doesn’t always see, what I see.
    It is a rare moment to get that perfect everything …
    Thank you
    Deana M.

    Like

    Deana

    September 27, 2011 at 5:20 am

    • Thanks for your lovely comment.
      Indeed, getting the camera to cooperate with the eye is the trick. How many years did I spend practicing seeing as a camera would see whether or not I had my camera along?
      Digital should make it a little easier with potentially more lighting corrections, but that’s not really what we are talking about.
      William Carter

      Like

      William Carter

      September 27, 2011 at 4:21 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: