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8 Rules for using Tonalism in Interior Design

Coined around the late 19th century by American painters, Tonalism provided a break from classical subjects of narrative paintings, and high contrasting colors or tones. Instead, artists explored an overall mood using similar hues and soft edges. Paintings were dominantly one hue, but often used a secondary color, either an analogous color (color next to it on the color wheel), or a complimentary color (color opposite on the color wheel). However, those secondary hue acted as a support for the main hue - an accent color if you will.



This painting called Arques-la-Bataille by artist John Henry Twachtman was created in 1885.It's hazy blues and green create the feeling of a foggy early morning by countryside lake. It evokes a cool and calm atmosphere.


We also see the use of tonalism sometimes in home building - especially contractor built homes. Using soft neutrals in various tones that blend together rather than contrast one another makes a larger percentage of the populace more interested in purchasing a home because they can visualize the potential use of the space clearer than if every room was a different saturated color. If the home were to have bold contrasting colors, spaces can feel disjointed, small, and awkward if not designed properly. This is not to say you can’t use anything but greys and browns. On the contrary, tonalism is to be used for mood. You don’t have to follow what the general contractor does but let’s dive in to how you can use tonalism in your home.


Rule#1 - start with inspiration. Choose visual inspiration. Most of the time, it’s being in a landscape that you love, whether it’s in a forest, on a beach, in the city, or a garden. But maybe it’s a painting, or a photograph. Just make sure it’s the atmosphere you want to emanate.


Then, download any app that allows you to pick (or autopicks if you’re not sure what colors to use) colors from your inspiration. You can adjust those colors as you wish according to real life situations like a restriction to flooring color or cabinet color. Alternatively, you could just use a different photo image for your inspiration. Print off an original photo to set on the floor or against your restrictive surface you have to work around to see if the overall effect blends well together.



Rule#2: Make the whole house flow. You can either use the same paint color for all rooms and vary the curtains, bedding, furniture etc. Or paint rooms slightly differently following Rule#4.


Rule#3 - Use flooring as a jump off point for setting the mood. You are not in control of flooring color - the manufacturer is. You have a lot of options to choose from when building a new home or renovating, but if you’re keeping your existing flooring, that will be your "jumping off" tone. Flooring is often in warmer tones of greys and browns. You can choose to compliment that with colors adjacent to it on the color wheel, or keep it all in the same family. When finding your inspiration photo, see if you can find one that has a color in it that’s close to your flooring sample.


The sunset on this building is close to the warm oak floors we often see. This photo was a good inspiration for ret of the tones that neutralize the orange. You can keep all wall warm white or use a warm or cool grey for other rooms. You may obviously not be able to pick the perfect color for everything but you can certainly use the inspiration as simply that - inspiration.






Rule#4 - Use paint swatches wisely. When you go to the paint store, they have paint swatches organized in the perfect manner to choose hues based on similar tones. One paint swatch will give you light to dark tones. Immediate swatches around it will be slightly cooler or warmer. Perhaps your main living spaces are the lightest shade while bedroom vary slightly either in temperature(warmer or cooler) or in value ( darker or lighter).





Rule#5 - keep accent colors muted. Accent colors are supposed to be supportive to the main colors, not distractive. If your main colors are in the blue family, your accent colors will be in the orange family - but keep those oranges muted to tones of browns and beiges otherwise a vibrant orange accent is all you will focus on and the overall mood will be broken.


Brian Sindler's painting sets an overall mood of a cool sunset. You can see the contrasting pink in the clouds and yellows in the sky by the horizon that are simply supporting cast members to the dark foreground greens and subtle grey-blues of the sky and horizon. The accents do not detract from the overall mood and subject of the painting. Thus, use your accents wisely when using tonalism in design.


Rule#6 - Keep it simple. Furniture, cabinetry, flooring, and accessories bring in so much character already that you don’t need a million different paint colors. Keep it simple. This will help with Rule#2.


Rule#7 - always go back to rule#1 and review you’re inspiration. Remember, it’s about setting the tone of the scene - the mood - the feeling when you’re in the space.


Rule#8 - Overall, art and design are things to be experimented with and rules are meant to be broken -once you fully understand them. Put together sample boards with once you've found your inspiration. Your Inspiration will never perfectly match the products you end up buying which is fine but that is why it's good to put together samples of carpet, hardwood, tile, paint samples, cabinetry samples, furniture colors, and drapery. Those will be your main items that will not change as quickly as accents like pillows and vases, and bedding.




Happy designing!


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