The Tonal Body

The Tonal Body

This is a broad category, a necessarily ill-defined category, yet a vitally important one. It somehow includes all the other ways of seeing. It is as if up until now we have been seeing people in prose, and now it is as if we are going to be seeing people poetically. 

What is tone?

Musically, so many words come to mind when we think of tone: timbre, color, character, resonance, ring, mood, feeling. Timbre comes closest to what I want to see. Timbre means, the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity. Generally, tone means, the distinctive quality, or character, of someone or something.

Visually, in drawing or painting, tone implies so much and does so much. Technically, tone means shades of lightness and darkness. But through lightness and darkness an artist can create contrast, forms, atmospheres, climate, depth, distance, patterns and rhythms, seemingly everything.

I’ve always loved Seurat’s drawings because of their tone. 


What is muscle tone? Its’ technical definition is not all that interesting to me. Tone is the act of a muscle in a steady, partially contracted state, caused by a successive flow of nerve impulses. It is the amount of tension or resistance to movement in a muscle. 

So, more tension, less tension would be the equivalent in drawing to darker and lighter. It’s becoming clear to me that I see the body less like a physiologist and more like a painter or musician. I look for tensional contrasts that create qualities, timbres, characteristics, atmospheres, moods, and patterns. I see gradations of tone that create continuums between such characteristic qualities as strong and weak, hard and soft, tense and relaxed, fixed and movable, stiff and pliant, dead and alive, awake and asleep, heavy and light, frozen and fluid, warm and cold, bound and free, big and small, comfortable and uncomfortable, tight and loose, controlled and uncontrolled. 

My eye also sees how a persons’ tone is distributed. In, Teaching by Hand/Learning by Heart, I write, “Each individual body is a microcosm of our collective body. Income inequality translates to tonal inequality. As we become structurally unbalanced, muscle tone becomes unequally distributed. Some muscle groups become hypertonic and others hypotonic. Some areas of the body hoard power while other areas of the body are left lifeless and depleted. Rather than the body governing itself harmoniously, the body descends into chaos. It begins breaking down. It’s working against every move it makes. It’s at war with itself. Pain and suffering ensue. Injury and illness follow. Look at healthy six-month old babies and you will see bodies where tone is evenly distributed, a homogeneous distribution of tone. They look round, like balls. Everything is filled out. As we grow up, we, more or less, lose our even distribution of tone.”

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My kids are Korean. When they were babies, I stared into their eyes and gazed at their faces as they stared into my eyes and gazed at my face. So, I feel I look like them, and...


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