Odilon Redon was a French Symbolist and communicates his emotions and ideas through the expressive use of line, form and colour.  I found an online extract of a publication by Harriet K. Stratis, A technical investigation of Odilon Redon’s pastels and Noirs, very helpful in my research work for this project.

Redon used the chiaroscuro technique in most of his charcoal as well as pastel drawings,  and spent many years working in monochrome. It is interesting to note that most notable artist who used chiaroscuro include the likes of Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio. Chiaroscuro is the use of dark and light contrast and in doing so create a dramatic effect and sense of volume through this transitioning of dark to light and vice versa.  In its most dramatic form, chiaroscuro as in the works of the Italian artists of the 17th century who came under the influence of Carravaggio —it was known as tenebrismo, or Tenebrism. Tenebrism is seen as more murky or gloomy.  I understand the work of modern day Odd Nerdum in this style, and have recently looked at the work of Hopper in this regard.  Caravaggio and his followers used a harsh, dramatic light to isolate their figures and heighten their emotional tension. Another master of chiaroscuro was Rembrandt, who used it with remarkable psychological effect in his paintings, drawings, and etchings. Peter Paul Rubens and Velazques also used chiaroscuro to great effect.

For the sake of this research, the understanding of Chiaroscuro by Redon surely taught him the importance of tone in his work. Variations in light and shadow fully reveal form and give us depth of space – it seems the strive is to constantly organise tonal values to you best advantage.  This tonal arrangement in a work will dictate its mood.  Redon  characterised himself as a “sad and weak child,” who “sought out the shadows.” He recalled, “I remember taking a deep and unusual joy in hiding under the big curtains and in the dark corners of the house.” This note of melancholy and pessimism would find its expression in his art, particularly in his noirs and mysterious Symbolist works.

Redon mostly worked with charcoals and pastels.  The use of tone and texture is valued in his drawings as he solely used  dark and light lines to create the illusion of the third dimension. This makes the drawing of the Two Trees, c 1985 so much more exciting to me. As it is just two trees, but his drawing skills make these trees a wonderful topic of discussion and art work.   Redon referred to his  charcoal works as  les noirs, French for black.  Redon explained his discovery of charcoal in a letter published by the magazine L’Art Moderne in June 1894, under the heading “Confidences d’Artiste” (Artist’s Secrets). “This everyday substance, which has no beauty of its own, aided my researches into chiaroscuro and the invisible. It is a neglected material, scorned by artists. I must say, however, that charcoal does not allow kindness; it is sober, and only with real emotion can you draw results from it.” The image below are done in charcoal (Cauldron of the Sorceress)








In the earliest noirs Redon used a combination of vine and oiled charcoal with touches of compressed charcoal. He also use black crayon, most likely conté crayon,  but more sparingly.  Black chalk, a much harder and blacker medium than the various charcoals used by the artist, was introduced in his drawings by  the mid-to-late 1870’s, at which time he also began to use compressed charcoal more extensively. These harder media would be used primarily to outline compositional elements over broad tonal passages of charcoal. After 1885,  black pastel appears with increased frequency in the noirs,  and Redon reserved its use for the last stages.  As a result, lines of black pastel stand out from and are accentuated by the warmer-toned media around and beneath them. Redon prepared the paper with an overall base of powdered charcoal. Often, his first step in the drawing process was to produce a modulated tone from which he could extract forms to establish his initial conception, he stumped, wiped and erased charcoal from the back and middle ground, would also use incising and added touches of chalk on cream-coloured treated paper, and often allowed untouched areas of the sheet to shine through for highlights.

Apparition, about 1880–90, Odilon Redon. Charcoal and powdered charcoal with stumping and yellow pastel on brown wove paper, 20 11/16 × 14 11/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.38 a caption

The study also found that he would ground the coarsest charcoal and then apply it with a brush in an impasto-like manner.  He would use the rectangular charcoal stick  turned on its side for broad tonal applications, and wetted a rounded stick with a pointed tip for linear applications. His intermittent use of fixative allowed him to expand his methods of subtraction to include incising with a pointed tool, scraping with a hard-bristled brush, and lifting of media with a sponge or his hands.  As he built the composition with layers of media, he intermittently fixed the surface and again subtracted media from it. Before the spray-applied fixative could dry, Redon reworked the damp charcoal surface with his fingers.

in the Spring of 1875 Redon makes studiens of trees and undergrowth at Barbizon . In this study mention in the beginning of this writing, I read that  the researchers found evidence of his fingermarks and established that he used his fingers to remove charcoal and re-applied  it to other areas.  He may have even used his fingernail to scrape away fixed media and create the delicate lines/forms.


Two Trees, ( Deux arbres) c. 1875

These methods of using charcoal and fixative helped Redon to create great value of tone which in the case of Two Trees, c 1875, created atmosphere.  His cross-hatched and chevron lines build up beautiful textures on the trees, as well as reflection of light and shadows in this work. The light and dark patterns almost leads the viewer’s eyes across the surface of the picture.   The markings , spots and fine lines around and on the tree bark, where the charcoal is absent, create an almost magical atmosphere to this work.  He creates lovely highlights and shadows in this composition and the the illusion of light from a specific source shining on the objects is experienced by the viewer. It seems to me that his use of tonal contrasts is leveraged to suggest the volume and modelling the trees as well as grasses and landscape behind the trees.

I think dramatic lighting is a tool to be used intentionally, with care. The main focus of a drawing is upon the form of objects, or the shape of a figure:  the use of tonal values  can be exceedingly helpful. The directional light in a drawing/painting can lift out details and features.  Thus a  a true  three-dimensional appearance can be achieved. Redon paid special attention  to reflected light in the shadows and highlights following the contours of the trees and branches. He makes use of halftone to create illusion of  form as he forms the curves of the trees – there are few sharp edges. The halftone are hatched to form curves.  The most beautiful of these tonal values to me is the  illumination that Redon creates in this work, and that with Black and no other colour.

I relate to his comment ( quoted by Claude Roger-Marx: Redon. Fusains, 1950, p. 8) “….Charcoal allows no light-heartedness; it has a certain gravity. Only emotion allows anything to be made of it” 

I have also looked at the work of  Georges Seurat who made some four hunderd drawings and achieved mastery of contrasts of tone when he worked mostly Ingres paper and used Black Conte crayons which he rubbed on to the paper. He did not not draw with lines, and the resisting force of the slightly ridgy paper was crucial in determining the outcome of a work.

By rubbing the paper very hard, so that the white, underlying sheet is obliterated the artist could produce a dense black. Rubbing less hard, and allowing the grainy textured Ingres paper to show through to one degree or another, results in a range of grays, while white (highlights) is achieved when the paper is left untouched.  Seurat used soft repeated strokes of black Conté crayon to build gradations of tone on the textured paper, creating this images without the use of line. The artist used the small raised peaks of the paper texture to achieve effects similar to the pointillism in his paintings.  I found it very interesting that drawing was a very important part of his development and career as an artist.


Gibson Michael: Odilon Redon  The Prince of Dreams, 1996.

Russell, John: Seurat 1985

Stratis, Harriet, K, Technical paper:URL: http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/bpg/annual/v14/bp14-08.html  Timestamp: Wednesday, 03-Aug-2011 10:44:35 PDT
Retrieved: Sunday, 06-May-2018 18:32:01 GMT




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