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.

Color Scales, Henri and the Winter’s Studio Group

Robert Henri, Young Buck of Tesuque Pueblo, 1916

Recently, I have been studying the intensity palettes of Robert Henri. These studies were part of a group effort by artists that surrounded Henri in 1915-1916. These included the artists George Bellows, John Sloan as well as Charles Winter, Randall Davey and H. G. Maratta. These meetings took place in Charles Winter’s studio. The group was interested in studying color intensity and coming up with a language that could identify color intensity in a practical way. Maratta had already explored this aspect of color in his Spectrum Color Chart patent of 1909. In this patent, Maratta identifies 5 levels that a color can be diminished by from its pure state to its near neutralization in a hue (a hue is a color that is neutralized but still maintains the character of its color- it blueness or its redness etc. Hue is used as such only in Maratta’s system and by those associated with the group of artists surrounding Henri).

But what Maratta had not achieved was a complete language to identify each color’s intensity and to create a scale of such intensity [In 1905 Albert Munsell will create a sphere that will include intensity (called chroma in Munsell’s version) as part of the spherical design and measured radially]. One of the first activities by the group was a creation of a chart that identified where each color in the spectrum in its most intense state fell in relationship to the complete spectrum of 12 colors. The intensity range was identified as 13 at the top of the scale and 1 at the bottom of the scale. So, 13 was the most intense and 1 was the least intense. The scale did not include every number between 1 and 13 but were actually numbered as follows in descending intensity: 13, 11, 9, 7, 5, 3, 1. Below this was a series of neutralized tones identified as ‘s’.

Therefore, each color received a number that identified where it fell in its most intense state as a pure, unadulterated color and from this top point, included all those mixes in descending intensity to ‘s’. What the group found was that the color YG was situated at 13 in its most intense state and therefore had a descending range down the entire scale to ‘s’. This is the only color that the group found that spanned the entire chart. At level 11 is G, GB, OY, Y, YG and G (reduced one register). Level 9 included a reduction in intensity of all the above plus B, R, RO, and O at their most intense state. Level 7 included all the above reduced one level and BP and PR at their most intense. Level 5 included all the above plus P at its most intense. Level 3, 1, and ‘s’ include all the 12 colors of the spectrum reduced at each level descending to near neutralization at level ‘s’.

If we look at the 12 colors of the spectrum they appear at their highest intensity at different levels. These are the colors in their pure, unadulterated state. Henri and his group identified where they fell on the chart by the indication of a number in the exponents place:

  • VR7
  • R9
  • RO9
  • O9
  • OY11
  • Y11
  • YG13
  • G11
  • GB11
  • B9
  • BP7
  • P5

But what was particularly interesting about the intensity chart was the idea of color scale. Henri and the other artists involved with the experiments used the term scale in a musical sense. In regards to paint, each color was reduced in intensity by it’s hue. An example: G was reduced by G hue. Secondly, each color scale ended with the addition of the complement. This was important because it showed how each scale was, in a sense, circular. The G scale ended with the addition of the R hue added to the lowest intensity G (at ‘s’). If the scale were to continue it would slowly become the R scale. Moving from the ‘s’ level, the color at its most reduced intensity, one would slowly begin to add R hue in less and less amounts to R until one reached R in its pure state.

Robert Henri, Mary Fanton Roberts, 1917

This circular aspect of the color scales I found most intriguing. And this insight effected all the artists involved. Sloan discusses color scales in “The Gist of Art” and like Henri uses this insight from 1915 onward. It becomes a method to visually allow color to subtly move across the surface of the canvas. This created a feeling of depth and an inherent sense of the movement of color in the composition. Each artist became attuned to the power of manipulating a color’s intensity to achieve various ends. Henri uses a color scale to take an area that is basically, say O, and create variety within that O area by painting it in various intensities of the O scale. This added an ‘aliveness’ to what should have been a flat color area. Henri also created depth by moving that O scale toward its complement of B allowing the O to travel spatially backward into the canvas. These are just two examples among many that Henri speaks of through his paintings at this time as well as in the “Art Spirit”.