Research Point: Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon 1840-1916

I knew nothing of this artist when I began this research. A quick scroll through Google Image left me uneasy; spooky images, the stuff of nightmares. I settled down with a handful of his ‘noirs’.


Small Bust of a Young Girl, 1884, Odilon Redon

The first to really grab my attention was Small Bust of a Young Girl, 1884 (45.3 x 31.8 cm. Private collection, Canada). I came across this on the website of the American Institute for Conservation – A Technical Investigation of Odilon Redon’s Pastels and Noirs – and it was fascinating in itself to see how he really was an artist devoted to capturing black, in all its blackness. This drawing is described as “ pastel, with touches of gouache and black and colored conté crayon, over traces of charcoal, on tan wove paper altered to a golden tone”.

There is no denying the atmosphere he’s captured, or created here. It’s that light at dusk where you can no longer focus clearly – a haze has descended – the gloam. Or it could be the light of a single candle, maybe an oil lamp. Perhaps it’s moonlight. Either way, it’s dim, the kind of light where we can’t be totally sure of the shadows – of what’s making them, of what lurks in the darkest corners.

I think he’s created this by the large band of darkest tone at the bottom – here sits the shadow whose depths we can’t be sure of – because we know that underneath this will be blacker still. The palest tone is on the forehead – and everywhere else he covers every tone between the two. His use of actual line is so sparse – a delicate outline of the overall shape, the jawline, nose, lip.

The area of shadow to the right behind the head is wonderful – his marks have become looser than the darker shadow to the left – the light is being let in. The area of mid tone bottom left has a different texture to the rest, but in combination with the strong delineation of light on the bottom part of the bust gives the effect of light reflected off an uneven surface, moving perhaps, or refracted as it shines through window panes.

I think it’s wonderful – it makes the hairs on my arms stand up!


Profil de Lumiere, 1885, Odilon Redon


The second drawing I looked at was Profil de Lumiere, 1885, Lithograph. Again the brightest spot is on the forehead and the most tentative of lines delineates the profile. Wheras in Small Bust of Young Girl the line is not really needed, here I think we would struggle without it. I don’t know anything about lithographs, but the marks here are more evident, there is less gradation from bright to dark rendering the light less realistic and more something of fantasy, or nightmare. It doesn’t move me as much as the previous piece.


Landscape, 1868, Odilon Redon

Landscape, 1868 is more obviously moonlight, and captures perfectly for me that moment of wonder when the moon comes out full from behind dark clouds and lights up the sky. As in the previous two drawings, he’s highlighted just one area, the rest is very very dark, except tiny highlights in the foreground. Areas of darkest black again create those shadows we can’t be sure of. What is in that creek? Is someone standing by the tree? Sitting on the rocks? He obscures so much – leaving it to our imagination to fill with ghosts, monsters, foxes. I took this image from the American Institute for Conservation – they’ve identified the process as follows: paper prepared with an overall base of powdered charcoal upon which he has used “Various charcoals, with black chalk and black conte crayon, wiping, stumping and erasing, on cream wove paper altered to a golden tone”.


I was intrigued by The Black Torches – which was created as a frontispiece to a collection of poetry by Emile Verhaeren – part of his ‘black trilogy’. It’s hard to see exactly what’s going on. There are statues, or are they alive? Something has been lit, there is smoke. Again Redon has created an area of absolute darkness but for a tiny piece of reflected light – letting us know that someone may be lurking there. The whole keeps us guessing, we want to know more, but we can’t quite focus in the gloom.


We both saw a large pale light, 1886, Odilon Redon

This encapsulates to me what Redon does so well – something hiding in the shadows and tiny specks of light glinting in the gloom. He adds huge contrast – the bright floorboards and the black above the staircase, but it doesn’t feel unlikely, I do believe it. And that’s I think how he captures the atmosphere – it’s really as we would see, through our eyes, struggling in the gloom. And I suppose depending on how we feel about the dark, it can be peaceful and serene, or eery and disturbing.


Pegasus and Bellerophon, 1888, Odilon Redon

Not moonlight or dusk, but in the shadows of a distant fire. The striking feature is the black wing, and right next to the highlighted head. It’s very beautiful, a smoky dream.

From the Met Museum’s description, we read that it is of “Charcoal, charcoal with water wash, white chalk, and highlighting by erasure on buff papier bleuté, darkened. Conté crayon is also present, and accounts for the darkest blacks in the drawing [per Marjorie Shelley, 9/24/09].”

I’m so glad I’ve had a good look at these works, albeit just online. If it hadn’t been for this exercise I may have passed on by – slightly repelled by the more fantastical drawings. But these inspire me to see what I can create with charcoal. Specifically:

  • lay down the ‘mood’ across the paper – try powder charcoal
  • don’t be afraid to make large areas of the darkest tone
  • remember the tiny fragments of light that escape and flicker in the gloom
  • objects can blend and disappear into the gloam
  • try different marks an textures in/under/on the charcoal






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