To watch a full length painting tutorial with Shanna Kunz on Tonalism click here


Tonalism was developed after 1880 until the late 1920’s. It was a way of using very subtle and harmonious color and values, intending to create poetry over reality. The color and value relationships are close in range, sometimes with a strong contrast in evening or morning light.
“Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.” – James McNeil Whistler. Dark, neutral hues such as gray, brown or blue, often dominated compositions emphasizing mood and emotion. Of course, Tonalism was eventually replaced by Imressionism, but has made a comeback in the last 20-25 years. As a painter in training, it is a wonderful tool to simplify – simplify color, values, tones, temperature! And it’s a fantastic way to see things not as they appear!

George Inness
George Inness Tonalism
George Inness tonalism
George Inness tonalism

“Like Breath On Glass”  Whistler

I studied art at Utah State University in Logan, UT.  As I was in my 30’s already and painting full time, I knew exactly what I wanted (and didn’t want) to do.  It was an hour drive up and back from my home and I needed to make the most of my experience.  My professors were wonderful, their passion for art, art history and authenticity captured my heart and instilled in me an unending drive to make something much more than a pretty picture.  I wanted to create work that was honest, skilled and mine, sometimes so bad, I imagined it would never be possible as I was just an ordinary person, a mom, a wife, and certainly not a “genius”.  The one thing I had though was this incredible work ethic (thanks mom) and a determination to never give up, never give up. 

One of my most valuable tools in school was my university library card.  USU had an incredible art library and I decided very early on that I would take advantage of it.  Every two weeks I would come home with as many art books as my arms could carry the six blocks I had to walk to get to the parking lot. 

It was there I happened on my first look at George Inness.  I was at school to study the figure, as it was something that I had initially been decent at.  Finding Inness and brought me back to all of my childhood memories of family vacations in the great outdoors – camping!  His work was not just landscapes – it was poetry.  So much drama, so much color – but in such an incredibly subtle way.  I visited an extensive exhibit of his work at the NYC Academy of Design. It forever changed me as a painter!

Dwight Tryon
Dwight Tryon tonalism
Dwight Tryon

Up Close And Personal

I found out that BYU had scheduled an American Tonalist exhibit just over an hour away from my home.  It was there I saw my very first Dwight Tryon.  My obsession turned to this Connecticut turned Massachusetts artist.  From there I scheduled a trip to The Freer Gallery in Washington DC for the largest collection of his work I had seen, along with the book An Ideal Country.  I have studied that book from cover to cover hundreds of times.  I had found landscape paintings that expressed what I felt about “my” landscape.  I have never gone back to figure – yet!  Researching one tonalist painter after another  took up years of my life, and I started to develop my own voice. 

Early 1900’s American Tonalists

James Abbott McNeil Whistler

Emil Carlson

Sanford Gifford

Charles Warren Eaton

Thomas Dewing

Bruce Crane

Albert Pinkham Ryder


Burge Harrison

R. Swain Gifford

Francis Murphy

Henry Ward Ranger

My Favorite Contemporary Tonalists are seen below:

Russell Chatham – see his work here

Michael Workman – see his work here

John Felsing – see his work here

Dennis Sheehan – see his work here