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.

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.