The main exponent of Australian Tonalism was Max Meldrum, who developed a unique theory of painting based on the importance of tonal values and objective optical analysis, resulting in simple representational works characterised by a "misty" or atmospheric quality. Meldrum's published theories of art created a storm in the Australian art world, and his school of painting attracted equally passionate followers and critics. Artists who adopted Meldrum's methods became derisively known as "Meldrumites". They rejected the then-popular Heidelberg School tradition with its emphasis on colour and narrative, and attacked various forms of modern art which Meldrum considered to be ego-based and technically inferior. Ironically, Australian Tonalism's conceptual complexities and illusionary soft focus aesthetic is now regarded as a precursor to modernist styles of painting, including minimalism.
Meldrum's students staged their first group exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery in 1919. In 2008, the Art Gallery of South Australia debuted Misty Moderns, the first major exhibition to cover Australian Tonalism since the movement's demise. Apart from Meldrum, Misty Moderns featured works by 17 of Meldrum's pupils and artists who formatively experimented with his tonalist system, including Clarice Beckett, Percy Leason, Colin Colahan, Lloyd Rees, Roland Wakelin, Roy de Maistre, Arnold Shore, Godfrey Miller and Elioth Gruner. Curator Tracey Lock-Weir identified Australian Tonalism as "arguably the first important advance in Australian landscape painting since Australian Impressionism of the 1880s."
- Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915-1950 Archived July 6, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, Art Gallery of South Australia. Retrieved on 5 December 2010.
- Kinnane, Garry. Colin Colahan: A Portrait. Melbourne University Publishing, 1996. ISBN 0-522-84710-2, p. 5
- Lock-Weir, Tracey. The sound of silence: Twentieth-century Australian tonalism, artaustralia.com. Retrieved on 5 December 2010.
- Misty Moderns - Essay, National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 22 November 2012.
- Edwards, David. Misty Moderns - Layer upon layer Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine, The Blurb Magazine. Retrieved on 5 December 2010.
- Lock-Weir, Tracey. Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915-1950. Art Gallery of South Australia, 2008. ISBN 0-7308-3015-2.
- Perry, Peter. Max Meldrum & Associates: Their Art, Lives and Influences. Castlemaine Art Gallery, 1996. ISBN 0-9598066-7-9.