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!

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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