An Experiment in Colored Edges and Halos

During the past month, I have been painting a still-life of pumpkin and squash on a bed of straw. Although I had not consciously planned it, this still-life became a medium to understand Goethe’s theories of colored edges. In my last blog, I wrote on the effects of light on narrow objects. When an object is narrow, its interior surface becomes effected by the colored halos. These colored halos meet within the boundaries of the object itself. Being conscious of this phenomena allows the artist to really get an intensity in the light that adds to the realism of the situation presented. Remember painting is about light and space more than about the strict rendering of an object.The object achieves its realism when it is engulfeded in light and atmoshere, rendering a specificity of space. The object is important as well, but mainly in regard to its symbolic significance and emotional impact.

So when I set out to paint my squash on a bed of straw, I was thinking of the setting more than an attempt to experiment with color. But the unconscious is always with you and its hidden activity eventually makes itself known. So what is straw, but narrow pieces of grass, thicker than hay? So what I have are these narrow pieces of grass illuminated by a strong natural light (I found on the days that the sky was bright, with high altitude clouds, that the colored edges were at their most intense. On cloudy days, when the amount of light coming into my studio was diminished, these colored halos were barely evident and sometimes entirely obscured).

In some areas, the straw appears as a dark against an intense light and also the reverse, a light against a dark.So the straw moves between these two reversals. In some areas the straw was piled up creating smaller shadows within the straw. As the straw is thicker and produces a dark, there are light pieces of straw cutting across these darks producing intensely colored blue edges and cast shadows that border the stong, local color (lightness/ yellowish) of the straw. Where the pumpkin created a cast shadow on the straw, the cast shadow had an intense red edge. This red edge caused by the appearance of the dark against the light straw. But this was intermittently broken up by the reversal of a strong blue edge caused by the light straw against the dark cast shadow. So this edge of the cast shadow moved from an intense blue to an intense red. Because the straw was not a solid object, being made of individual pieces of grass, it wavered between light against dark and dark against light. So the edge also wavered between blue and red.


What was also remarkable was the introduction of an intense green, like a viridian. Goethe states that at the ,”highest point of complete junction of the opposite edges, the colors appear as follows:

Light object on Dk     /     Dk object on light

Yellow-red                      Blue

Green                              Red

Blue-red                          Yellow

(Goethe’s Theory of Colors: With Notes (1840), p.100)” Both cases were observed, but the green was quite different and noticeable, especially near the milkweed pod and surrounding straw which was quite light, almost white against its own cast shadow. The green also appeared where an illuminated  piece of straw cut across a dark, appearing more pure in the straw of the left foreground.

This phenomena brought back memories of observing the portraits of Frans Hals (and also Velasquez). He constantly used dots of intense color- reds, blues, yellows. And these intensly colored dots created such a feeling of light and luminosity. It heightened one’s experience of the subject because such phenomena is only observable from life. One cannot see it in photographs. The eye, only, can observe this because it can penetrate into the darks and absorb the color there. It is also more adaptable to seeing the overlap of light against dark and the subsequent halo from it and its reverse, dark against light.

Robert Henri always emphasized in his notes that color means light. To achieve luminosity, color must be present beyond value.

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.

2 thoughts on “An Experiment in Colored Edges and Halos”

  1. This is great stuff Judith! This is what it’s all about this and the symbolism.Your description of your observations while using the color theories is so interesting. The straw looks more like straw in you painting than it does in life! You are such an explorer Judith. It,s like the philosophy of seeing. Also, thinking of the- as you say- symbolic significance of the objects and their emotional impact, opens my imagination and the painting becomes a kind of question to me. A beautiful mystery to contemplate.

    1. Thank you Whit. I often wonder why I cannot just paint the object before me and let it stand perfectly on its own. Somehow I feel compelled to explore my experience further- that lying before me must be something that I only have a vague notion of. This vague notion compells me to be open to perceiving something beyond my immediate experience. And it is in these deep and thoughtful moments that I catch a glimpse of the immensity of life. It is this granduer that I wish to bring back out of the darkness. Somehow, I would like my work to act as a bridge to this deeper experience.

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