A Practical using Spectrum Color Recession

Judith Reeve, “Nectarines”, 6″ x 8″, oil on linen, 2017

When one thinks about creating a feeling of depth within a composition, one, most times, considers intensity as the key to successful recession of space. If an object is closer to the light source within a composition, the illuminated side of the object will contain a certain amount of intensity. And as objects recede from the light source, moving toward half tone and shadow, their color will appear less intense and more neutralized. Let’s think of it another way. John Sloan states in his “Gist of Art” (now called “On Drawing and Painting”),

“A significant factor in color is the quality of projection and recession which colors have when laid together. If you look at the spectrum, the hot brilliant oranges and yellows advance toward the eye, while the cool greens, blues, and violets recede. Colors of full intensity advance more than neutral hues. The artist makes use of this dynamic, architectural power of color to build form.” (John Sloan “On Drawing and Painting”, p.117)

There are multiple ways to make color recede. One can slowly neutralize that color as it recedes from the light source or one can allow the form to turn or recede by following the spectrum band away from that color. In the painting above of “Nectarines”, I use the second method to turn the form and allow the space to recede. The colors I used for this painting are given below.


Judith Reeve, Attentiveequations Blog
Spectrum Color recession beginning with OY at the highest intensity, receding to BV.

The color that I wish to come most forward is the OY. This forms the top of my triangle. From this point all the adjacent colors slowly recede from the OY. On the left the color moves to R, VR and V. These colors become cooler and darker in value than the OY. On the right, the YG recedes from the OY because it is also cooler and darker. This side ends in BV, the complement to OY and is also cooler and darker. So what I have done is allowed the OY to project because of its position along the spectrum band. Keeping my colors in full intensity, I allow the R, VR, V, YG and BV, to model the form of my object and assist the half tones to recede into the shadows and the shadows to then recede into the background.

So let’s look at the most forward nectarine in the composition. The highlight area is OY+white. This then recedes to OY pure and O. Toward the bottom of the fruit it advances toward R. As the light side transitions to the shadow edge, the form moves from the OY to the YG. The shadow is composed of R and VR. The shadow edge was made with the neutral: R+OY+BV. This gave me a tone that chose its own color by being juxtaposed near R or near YG (Chevreul’s, “Simultaneous Contrast of Colors”).

The far nectarine follows a similar route to achieve the turning of the form. The OY moves to O to R to VR to the neutral shadow edge to the shadow of R and RO. Note that the only neutralized color is the neutral of the shadow edge. The highlight is also slightly neutralized with the addition of white. The other colors of the palette have not been neutralized and maintain their full intensity. I also, have not overtly intermixed the colors except through my application of the paint strokes.

After setting the mixes on my palette, I did create additional mixes of O= R+OY. And I created two higher values of the BV and one darker value of the BV. (The two lighter values of BV were added to the ground plane and the cool BV reflection on the far nectarine; the darker BV – a touch was added just under the near nectarine in the cast shadow; these additional BV were barely used). All of these additions were made prior to painting and set on the palette. After these were set, there was very little mixing between the colors. I really tried to model the form without neutralizing the colors and instead, model the form using the color spectrum as it receded from the OY (my foremost color of projection).

One will notice that on the right side of my diagram, I skipped colors. I skipped the Y between the OY and the YG. I also eliminated the G, GB, B. These colors can help the form recede, but in this composition, I felt it was unnecessary to add them. I could have just created a feeling of recession using the left side of the triangle only. But again, I felt the YG was necessary in this composition. But why did I not use the Y? I did not use Y because Y would come more forward than the OY. Y creates the most projection along the color spectrum. So, if I desired the OY to project the most, I had to eliminate the Y at least in full intensity. I could have created a semi-neutralized Y to take its place, but my main goal in this composition was to achieve form at as full intensity as possible allowing the spectrum color recession to work its magic.

In a previous blog on spectrum color recession, I allowed for this neutralization of adjacent colors to my top color, such as OY. But I found that by eliminating the near competition of a color such as Y next to the OY, and using all the colors at full intensity, I achieved a heightened feeling of color that was much more dramatic. In fact the color played so well at a high level of intensity, that my camera could not take an image of it. The photographic image appeared almost as a negative. I eventually was able to get something near the actual painting through an iPhone camera. But still, it does not fully capture how the eye can feel the vibrations between the juxtaposed colors. Hence, paintings should be seen in person because only the eye is sensitive enough to perceive such things. But, it also goes beyond retinal accuracy. The eye in the process of perceiving, sends an image to the brain and it is here that the heightened sensation of color takes place in the mind of the observer.

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.

One thought on “A Practical using Spectrum Color Recession”

  1. Beautiful painting! The colors are so vibrant and harmonious. It really sings. This is a terrific lesson and demonstration.

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