A Color Temperature Practical

Judith Reeve, A Palette of Three Primaries and the Neutral.

I have been teaching a drapery study class in my studio this fall. Besides instructing my students on the fundamentals of drapery- design, proper construction, characterization, and dynamic rhythm- I wanted to explore color temperature modeling since my students were painting. To effectively allow the color temperature on the drape to be evident, I used a white cotton drape. I also manipulated or exaggerated the color by adding red fabric below the arrangement to add a vivid red reflected light. This reflected light is more intense closer to the bottom of the drape. The red reflected light then loses intensity progressively toward the top, infiltrated by a yellow tone of reflected light.

Judith Reeve, Photo of the Drapery in my studio.

What is not evident from the photo is the warm, yellowish direct light from my lamp. This warmed the general light side but allowed for a blasted, cooler highlight. There is also a cool blue form shadow edge meeting the halftones on the light side. The cast shadows are also cool, tending toward a green-grey. This color relates to the tone of the wall.

My purpose for this arrangement was to allow each primary, red, yellow, and blue an evident area within the drape. This created structure for my students to explore how a white ( i.e.-neutral) drape is affected by color temperature variations that reflect a change in the plane and the directional source of the light.

I next created a simplified palette design that would establish certain limitations. The primaries used are:

  • Red- cadmium red vermilion (Old Holland)
  • Yellow- a mix of raw sienna deep (Old Holland) + cadmium yellow (W&N). This mix contains more raw sienna than cadmium yellow.
  • Blue- Indanthrene blue (W&N) + Ivory black (Old Holland). One could substitute Ultramarine blue for Indanthrene blue, as some of my students did. This mix contains more black than blue.

You will notice that these primaries are not balanced through intensity. I have created a hierarchy of intensity where red is the most intense, followed by yellow, then blue. Remember that the drape is primarily neutral. So I had my students create a neutral mix from these three primaries that they then set on the palette to use during the painting process (this is the mix to the top, far left on the palette). Sometimes white was added to this neutral (N + W) to create a lighter value that was then added to the lighter tones. The additional yellow mix (to the right under the blue) contained a little more cadmium yellow and was used in some of the brighter areas on the light side to pump the color up, as one was apt to add more white to the mixtures to increase the values.

The method: The goal is to produce a painting of a white drape that perceptively shifts in color temperature to achieve the modeling of the forms not just through black/white value changes but also color temperature changes. Color temperature modeling consists in varying the color temperature to “turn the forms.” That means alternating the temperature warm, cool, warm, cool, etc. Secondly, the students will use the neutral to subtly harmonize these colors, adding the neutral to lower the value and shift the color temperature. Some of this neutral is mixed into most of the colors, and a harmonious unity is created in the painting through this shared neutral color.

An example: I begin with the higher values and cooler highlight areas using the lightest version of the yellow + white. As I move to the warm general light area (yellow), I will add more of the neutral as the halftones move toward the form shadow edge. This will effectively cool and lower the value of those halftones while simultaneously maintaining a coherent relationship with the generally warm light area. The shadow edge will be cool and bluer, with more of the neutral added to darken the value. Then, the reflected lights will be lighter and warmer, varying from a yellow/orange tone to an intense red tone. Again, the neutral is added to each of these tones unifying the shadow area. Lastly, the cast shadows on the drape are darker/cooler toward the green, again, with more of the neutral added. The demo of mixes on the palette demonstrates only some of the possibilities for shifting the color temperature inherent in this method.

Some of my students working on drapery.

This lesson allowed me to share some of Robert Henri’s techniques from the early 1920s. Henri went through a period of experimenting with a series of neutrals derived from the primaries in order to control the values while simultaneously he sought to model the forms through color temperature. Henri found these studies very successful, opening him up to a new understanding of color technique in his work.

Form can be modeled in black and white, but there are infinitely greater possibilities in modeling through the warmth and coolness of color.

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p. 62.

Henri may have initially explored this idea because Albert Munsell’s Color Notation, 1905, was gaining interest among artists in the teens and early twenties. Through my own experience, I have found that color temperature modeling adds incredible vitality to a painting. The eye is scintillated by the juxtaposition of the opposites keeping the surface of the canvas activated. It also creates a greater feeling of form even when the values are nearly identical.

Try this color temperature practical and let me know in the comments if you found it effective or if you have any additional insights through your practice. Enjoy painting!

Transpersonal Experience and the Role of the Artist

George Inness, "Indian Summer,"
George Inness, “Indian Summer,” 1894, 30 x 42, Private Collection

As a young person, I always had big questions about my experience of the world, my personal role within this world, and how these two concepts are intertwined. Because of this innate curiosity, I end up majoring in philosophy at Fordham University. Specifically, Phenomenology, which studies human experience in order to answer some of those big questions or at least provide a thread of insight.

Characteristically, the artist uses visual perception to discover the world for themselves and, secondarily, to reveal that personal vision to others so that they might share that vision. But the artist doesn’t just “see” nature; they feel it affectively through their body.

“I not only saw, but felt in my body all that I saw.”

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backwards, 1960, p. 214.

The artist feels through their body what they perceive. When viewing a landscape that I am painting, I have found myself not only perceiving the objects that I am painting, field, tree, and sky, but I find myself venturing up that hill and experiencing that long grass by running it through my fingertips, smelling its earthy smell and observing its color and forms up close. I have not left my painting position. But I have opened myself bodily to what I am experiencing visually and emotionally. I have broken through that wall that separates me, the subject, from nature, the object. This bond formed in me between what I see and feel and the object before me is called a transpersonal experience.

Walt Whitman expresses this so eloquently in “Salut un Monde,”

What do you see Walt Whitman?

Who are they you salute, and that one after another salute you?

I see a great round wonder rolling through space.

I see diminute farms, hamlets, ruins, graveyards, jails, factories, pal-aces, hovels, huts of barbarians, tents of nomads upon the surface.

I see the shaded part on one side where sleepers are sleeping, and the sunlit part on the other side.

I see curious rapid change of the light and shade…

Walt Whitman

Whitman rises above the earth bodily and looks down at what he sees. He is experiencing the activities of man from a distance, seeing them as diminutive compared to the rolling mass of the earth and the action of the sun. He takes on a cosmic role, not because he is an egoist, but because he embodies a unity of vision between himself and nature. Every artist does this, whether consciously or unconsciously. “But how is this possible, unless there is a bodily felt participation in things, an emphatic inhabiting of things, an openness to being touched by things, even at a distance?” (David Levin, Transpersonal Phenomenology: The Corporeal Schema, Northwestern University).

George Inness, "Landscape, Montclair,"
George Inness, “Landscape, Montclair,” 1894, Private Collection

As a painter, this interrelationship between feeling and perception is directly transferred to the canvas through the painting gesture, the brushstroke. I felt what I saw and felt what I painted; the gesture, the bodily movement of my arm and hand conveys all that I see, all that I am embodying in the moment, conveying a transpersonal experience through an open reverie. I am no longer separate and isolated from my subject. The subject and I are one and the same. This bodily attunement puts me in the presence of all things with no fixed boundary and leaves me utterly open to a newness and timeless encounter. Levin believes every person can reach this heightened and interpersonal connection to the world, but many lack awareness of this connection or cannot make the emotive leap. Levin states, “Transpersonal development restores the aliveness of this primacy, which tends to get subordinated, during our socialization, to the structural identity of the ego.”

The artist’s role is to be aware, attentive, and open to a transpersonal encounter. The artist, who is constantly practicing and immersed in self-reflection, paves the way for this experience even before they commence the painting of an image. There is a fluidity of engagement in the very practice of one’s art. The artist participates in a sympathetic relationship with their subject, attuned to the “spell” of the object and the emotive emanation elicited from the object to the artist. This desire carries us out of ourselves and changes us. And it is the very thing we share through our work.

George Inness‘ painting exudes this fluidity of engagement. Many of Inness’ late works contain vast spaces on the canvas with minimal variation in the color or paint quality. He flicks random strokes on the canvas, not necessarily identifiable as an object, creating spontaneous marks that add an aliveness. Inness gives us an experience of the transpersonal, an open engagement with the world. We imaginatively add to these passages, delving into Inness’ experience as if it was our own. This open, highly imaginative structure is one of the greatest achievements of painting. We are transformed and renewed through our perception, feelings, and embodiment of the subject- a transpersonal experience.