Color Studies

Judith Reeve, “Coming Front”, 8″x 12″, oil on board, 2020

This summer and into the fall, I painted around 80 small pochades, mostly about 8″x 12″ or 6″x 16″. I looked at this push as a way to find relief from the pandemic. At least while I was engaged outside, I was not brooding over an impending disaster. To my surprise, this intense effort thrust my work to a new place. It is impossible at times, not to feel like you are on the same plateau you have been on for years. Sometimes you need a jolt to effectively propel you in a new direction.

I found these quicker studies allowed me to experiment with new color arrangements. It forced me, to not “repeat” myself, but find a new way to express the more elusive colors. These are the neutrals, semi-neutrals and grays that are difficult to put your finger on. They don’t have a straight-forward expression of color. In a sense you could effectively use multiple combinations to achieve a likeness. And that was the point. Working these pochades in succession, I was able, through trial and error, to capture these colors in new ways.

Judith Reeve, “Building Clouds”, 8″x 12″, oil on board, 2020

The beautiful clouds that we have had lately, have provided a good example on which to experiment with these elusive colors. These full clouds contain wonderful grays that vary in color temperature, containing deeper violets and blues as well as warmer, neutralized passages. These cloud bottoms or overlapping layers of cloud cover, are bluer near the horizon and move to a warmer gray, following the arc of the sky to its apex. The reverse occurs in the lights in which the pinks rest near the horizon moving to a neutralized yellow and ending in a more pure white near the apex. Some of the color combinations producing a gray- blue to violet; a warm neutral to a gray green; and a warm yellow, violet gray-that I found interesting:

  • Cobalt blue + English red [iron oxide]
  • Blue violet + Green blue
  • Blue violet + GB + Red orange
  • Blue violet + Green
  • Purple + yellow [cobalt yellow]
  • Viridian + English red
  • Viridian + Blue violet
  • Blue green (cobalt + my GB, Henri used this in his Triangular Palette and I found it worked well with reds that tend toward orange such as English red or light red) + English red

Last month I read Edgar Payne’s, Composition, and he developed a method where he would create a neutral for the palette that he was working in. This neutral, which was a combination of several mixes of pure color, was mixed and laid on the palette before the work was commenced. Then this neutral was mixed into the pure colors to effectively neutralize a pure color combination or to help in modeling the half-tones or transitions between the light and dark passages. I have used this in my studio work, but had not really applied this to outdoor work. When one is modeling something close at hand, I could see that this method could simplify the value transitions one sees in forms, especially along the shadow edge. But working outside, I am never really too close to anything, to model the forms this minutely. But what I found was that this neutral can pervade the landscape in a broad way.

Judith Reeve, “Evening Valley, October”, 6″x 16″, oil on board, 2020

I found that this neutral resides in the middle ground area across the tops of the forms such as the trees or hills. This is where the light is not so warm as the foreground and not so cool as the receding planes on the far hills or trees. Adding this neutral sparingly, allows the eye to travel uninterrupted toward the horizon. And this makes sense. That middle area transitions a color along its scale, moving from say, a yellow, through the neutral center of the palette, to its opposite on the other side of the color circle, that being violet. [Refer to Sloan’s, Triangular Palette and the use of Scale]. This makes total sense, that what appears as a warm yellow in the foreground, will appear more neutralized, through atmosphere, in the middle ground, and finally join its complement in the far distance. Although, intellectually, I knew this, it was another thing to apply a simple insight by Payne to bring it home.

There are other things that I found through these experiments that will remain within the unconscious and hopefully, will pop up to the surface when they are needed. This is the real goal of experimentation- to create a range of experience that can expand one’s technique in the moment of artistic engagement in the world, as well as, heighten that lived experience and bond it to the creation of a work of art.

Please join the Attentive Equations Newsletter to receive regular updates…

On the Shores of Cape Cod

Judith Reeve, “Dune Cliff, Truro”, 8 x 12, Oil, 2020

Every summer I try to get away for an extended period of time in order to paint. It is a retreat for me and a time to recharge my batteries. I was concerned that this year I would not be able to travel because of the pandemic. Fortunately, I found an isolated cottage on the Cape- a converted fishing shanty on the Pamet tidal river. I could paint right from the attached pier if I chose or take a short drive to some of the more remote beaches where I love to paint.

The older I get the more I am in search of the untouched space. Nature is a renewing force and even when man damages an environment, nature returns vigorously to restore itself. My worries about the environment also make me appreciate the fragility of this world. I wonder, if I return next year, will something already be different or missing.

Judith Reeve, “Dunes, Evening”, 8 x 12, Oil, 2020

This year, I had the experience of returning to a beach and seeing a dramatic change for the better. This beach, Head of the Meadow, was in poor shape several years ago. In front of the beach a sandbar had developed that cut you off from the sea. The dunes were worn from pedestrians. This year, the bar was gone and the beach was filled with a new growth of dune grass- very much like a meadow, hence its name. I had never seen it this way, its true state. Within and along this meadow grass were nesting terns and plovers. It was again, wild and peaceful.

I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings…where I might have a fertile unknown for a soil around me.

Judith Reeve, “Dune Cliffs, Truro”, 6 x 16, Oil, 2020

It is the wildness that renews us, invigorates us and sets us on the path to recognizing ourselves again. As Dante expressed, at the beginning of the Inferno, that he came to himself only after he entered a dark wood, having lost his way. This wildness authenticates our experience and plants us in the here and now, ready and open to this new moment. Artists have always sought a retreat. We all develop a certain blindness, a dulling of our vision, by remaining constantly in the same environment. Travel provides a way to awaken the senses allowing one to see things a new. It sharpens my attentiveness giving me the very reason I need to paint. In this way, my painting finds validation in the experience of this heightened sensitivity in seeing. I feel as though I have received a new clarity in my vision and my eyes are open once again.

As twilight deepens and the moonlight is more and more bright, I begin to distinguish myself, who I am and where; as my walls contract I become more collected and composed and sensible of my own existence…

Judith Reeve, “Dune Prominence”, 6 x 16, Oil, 2020

Time to read and contemplate renews my craft and allows me to recollect my thoughts about my work. I revisited John Carlson’s, Guide to Landscape Painting, and Edgar Payne’s, Composition of Outdoor Painting. Although, I have read these books many times, it was good to examine them once again. In many ways, it is the little comments or asides that both these artists express, that give one a renewed insight into one’s own work. Here Payne expresses his ideas on the Mass Principle:

The mass idea is conducive to holding the attention on the picture as a whole. It creates an abstract interval between the realistic detail of nature and the broad impression on the canvas. The interval represents the artist’s ability to see nature in a big way, to conceive large mass ideas, and paint broadly with large brushes. A broad impression with little detail is an abstract of nature.

Payne, Composition, p. 63

This helped reinforce my own desire to get a more monumental quality in my landscape painting. I found this easy to achieve painting along the Maine coast, but much more difficult in the Catskill mountains and on the Cape. The topography of the Cape is subtle. The dunes are extremely high and monumental where I paint, but it is a challenge to give a proper feeling of scale. In my compositions, I placed the dunes near the upper edge of my panels (8″ x 12″ or 6″ x 16″) to assist with this feeling. I also, when possible, created a tension with the direction of the clouds. Cast shadows also helped shape these large sand forms and indicate the direction of the light adding to this quality of immensity.

Judith Reeve, “Dune, Daybreak”, 6 x 16, Oil, 2020

The charm of broadly painted pictures lies in the fact that the viewer must use his imagination; he then feels the abstract impression as intended by the artist.

Payne, p. 64

This idea is so important. Both Delacroix and Henri advocated this approach and this concept was central to 19th century painting. But it is something we have forgotten. With so many landscapes produced from photographs, detail overrides the broad impression that is key to evoking a heightened feeling of emotion that a painting should have. The more broad the impression, the more compelling the image. Detail should be suppressed to a certain degree so that the viewer “feels” the sweep of the land and sky and is moved by it.

Judith Reeve, Painting the evening sea in Truro.

From Carlson, I meditated on creating the unity of the light emanating on that particular day. This is key to establishing an over-all harmony between the parts in an image as well as, achieving spatial dimension in a painting.

Once the big color relations have been established, I try to bind these together in the ‘unity of the light’ which pervades them. This requires a good deal of going back and forth, slightly changing the tones that are out of harmony. I do not repaint such tones but I jab other colors into them until I have swayed them into harmony. This procedure ensures color vibration within the masses and engenders luminosity.

Carlson, American Artist Magazine, Dec. 1942 [special thanks to John Potashnick for posting this online].
Judith Reeve, Mixing the lighteners on the right of palette and adding them to the dune color and values on the left.

Every time I set up to paint on this trip, I first established the color of the light enveloping the scene. I then, mixed this color on my palette in two values: a very light value (with much white added) to lighten my higher tones; and a middle value to lighten my darks (this color also indicates the color of the reflected light from the sky onto the ground forms). I found this particularly invaluable when painting such a large and open space as the dunes and sea where the atmosphere dominates. My images were painted in July on some very hot days, so my lighteners ranged from blue to blue-violet to violet depending on the time of day and the cloud cover. I found these experiments very satisfactory. I hope you enjoy my images.

Judith Reeve, Painting the dune cliffs in Truro.

Please join the Attentive Equations Newsletter to receive regular updates…