Odilon Redon was a French artist born in 1840 (died in 1916). He started drawing as a young child but his father encouraged him to go into architecture, which he subsequently failed. He took up sculpture when he also learnt the skills of etching and lithography but then his career was briefly interrupted by serving in the Franco-Prussian war until 1871.
After the war Redon moved to Paris and started to work primarily in charcoal and lithography. He named his ‘visionary’ works, his ‘noir’ which he worked on up until 1900 from when he produced no more ‘noirs’. ‘Two Tree’s in 1875 was drawn during this ‘noirs’ period, and is a great example of one of the less surreal of his pieces. These ‘noirs’ drawings appear to offer so much ‘grit’ and depth due to the enormous variety in tonal values. Areas of his drawings, such as ‘Captive Pegasus’ are completely dark and its as if the drawing comes out of the page.
In ‘A Technical Investigation of Odilon Redon’s Pastels and Noirs’ by Harriet. K. Stratis, I learnt a bit more about Redon’s technique and mediums. His use of materials changed during the course of his career as he found more techniques to apply black to his drawings. In the earliest drawings he used a combination of vine and oiled charcoal with some compressed charcoal. He also used black crayon, most likely conte crayon, fabricated black chalk, and then finally black pastel after the mid 1880’s appears more frequently in his drawings. Redon used black pastel for the ‘last stages of working over prayer and browner media’, and ‘as a result lines of black pastel stand out from and are accentuated by the warner-toned media around and beneath them’.
I had never heard of oiled charcoal, and so read that this was probably made by the artist himself by soaking vine charcoal in linseed oil, and this is something that I might possibly try myself.
Regarding ‘Two Trees’, it was drawn the same year as ‘Tree’ c.1875 (very few of Redon’s works were actually dated). In ‘Tree’, Redon intermittently used fixative and then took medium away from the drawing, incising with a pointed tool, scraping with a brush, and using a sponge or his hands to lift media. You can see in ‘Two Tree’s that he has likely used a sponge to lift the charcoal at the base of the trees and on the left hand tree. He played around with the drawing until the fixative could dry and frequently used his fingertips for painting and his fingerprints often show in his drawings. Redon also deliberately chose fixatives which he knew would yellow/turn golden with age, which therefore add to his drawings a glow. Most artists of his time would fight this but Redon used it to his advantage.
There is nothing tentative about Redon’s use of medium, and I love the depth this creates to portray his subject matter. Its almost as if the subject matter is secondary to his use of materials – he clearly enjoyed the process of creating the drawings. This is exactly where I feel I need to be braver and create stronger tonal values, and I am excited by the idea of trying out some of Redon’s methods to create a stronger image.
Odilon Redon, Two Trees 1875, charcoal on paper
Captive Pegasus, 1889, Lithograph in black on cream China paper laid down on cream wove paper
Salome c.1893, Pastel with touches of graphite, over charcoal and black chalk, on tan wove paper.