Building Up to Color

Judith Reeve, “Evening Light, North Branch”, 8″ x 12″. Variations of red and yellow hue.

I live in the Catskill mountains and December brings on the wonderful neutrals in the landscape. Not just the browns and grays, but the beautiful blue, yellow and red hues. These are neutrals that still maintain the character of the color that they are derived from. The distant mountains and hills are a series of subtle blue hues. The dead hay fields and scrub bushes are a series of soft, subdued yellows. And the dried goldenrod, briars and rough grasses bordering the fields are a dull red hue. Much of this is pervaded by a cool violet-blue cast from the sky. This time of year, it is rare to have an intense blue sky. We usually have to wait until it really gets cold and the sun begins to cycle back toward longer days.

Robert Henri is known for his vibrant color combinations set against a foil of semi-neutral tones. We take it for granted that he just boldly laid down his color in the intensity he intended immediately. This is true to some degree, but not completely. In the early 1920’s, Henri experimented with a new approach.

At this time, Henri sought to develop a palette that was completely permanent. Henri was not alone. There were many artists that were concerned about the quality of the pigments in artists materials. Post WW I, there was a cheapening of artist materials with new industrial processes. Europe had been devastated and much of the industrial west had suffered economically. So many of the pigments imported to the United States were of inferior quality and light-fastness and their pigment identification was questionable. Henri, along with H.G. Maratta and several other artists, formed The League of American Artists in order to create a handbook of “Artist’s Oil Pigments”. Henri was the main mover behind this investigation and a copy of this manuscript resides in Henri’s archive. It was proofread by George Bellows near its completion.

The reason I have added this historical data, is because Henri experimented with these permanent pigments and developed a method to incorporate earth tones and neutrals into his images in a new way. Henri referred to it as, “keeping down to color”. Henri would use,

“…strong grays in the half-tones and shadows. These modified in later painting… reserving for finish the higher notes.” [Henri’s notes to himself, Archive of Robert Henri, Yale University, Beinecke Library, Box 26, Folder 606, p. 24]

With this new method, Henri would strongly model the forms first with earth tones as well as, the hues from Maratta’s Spectrum Palette. These include the red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple hue. The primary hues are the root hues and the secondary hues are mixed from these. So, instead of a traditional under-painting in raw umber or ivory black, Henri would use the hues or a series of earth tones (such as Payne’s gray, Indian red, yellow ocher) to model the forms of the figure first and then build up to higher intensity colors to complete the image. This initial layer was not monochrome, but contained a low intensity version of the true color of the forms. These low intensity colors would also be of a lower value in this base layer. Low intensity and low value initially, then building up to full rich spectrum color in the final surface layer.

Judith Reeve, “Rising Vapor, December”, 8″ x 12″. Variations of blue hue in the distance.

In my landscape painting recently, I have begun using combinations of the red, yellow and blue hue to lay in the base of my coloring. Then, on top of this, I build up the more intense color on the surface, simultaneously allowing this color to mix into the initial layer or allowing it to remain a broken color juxtaposed against the initial lay in.

The combination of colors to create a hue need not always be the same. Each hue is made up of a mix of 2 secondaries (or tertiary combinations) such as blue hue= green + purple. But one can also vary which color combinations you draw from to mix the hue depending on how true a blue you desire. This is covered in some of my posts on a color’s scale as examined in the Triangular Palette. An example, for blue hue: rather than G + P, I could mix GB + P. This mix produces a cooler and bluer combo and comes between the hue and the Bi color along the color’s scale.

Judith Reeve, “Coming Front, December”, 8″ x 12″. Variations of blue, red and yellow hue.

What is interesting about these hues laid in as a base to the more intense colors is that this combination of pigments that are laid side by side or loosely mixed, produce an optical effect called gradation. This was an optical effect Delacroix utilized that was later optimized by the Impressionists. Gradation creates a sensation whereby, an area that appears as a single color field, is in actuality, composed of several variations of a color, shifting in color temperature, intensity and value.

In my next newsletter I will touch upon mixing the hues and several combinations that I found effective for winter landscape painting. Please sign up for my newsletter and become a member of the Attentive Equations community of artists.

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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