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.

The Triangular Palette of Robert Henri

My copy of Henri’s notes from John Sloan’s visit to Henri’s studio Oct. 4, 1919.

In 1919 John Sloan presented Robert Henri with a palette he had been working on in collaboration with Charles Winter. Robert Henri was a part of this group of artists that got together to explore various color theories and practical palette designs. The color theorist, H.G. Maratta was also involved. On this occasion, Sloan brings Henri something from the group because Henri was very busy at this time teaching and painting and had not gone to the group in several months. Sloan visits Henri’s studio and discusses this new palette design.

The Triangular Palette seems to have derived from a color theorist named Dundeen, possibly from France. Sloan mentions this briefly in “The Gist of Art”. This triangular design had its origin in the work of mathematician and astronomer, Tobias Meyer whose design was published as the “Tobias Mayer’s Mixing Triangle”. This seems to be the basis for Sloan’s Triangular Palette. Sloan gives credit to Charles Winter for bringing this design to the group to study. I also imagine that Maratta had knowledge of this design since he was immersed in European color theory. Maratta also transformed this design to embody his own color theories and it fits perfectly well into his Spectrum Palette design. In fact, Sloan’s presentation includes Maratta’s understanding of the Bi colors and Hues in the schematic design. Henri will also incorporate Maratta’s pigments from the Spectrum Palette in his arrangement of this new palette.

As I am wrapping up my own book on Henri’s color investigations, I have had to go back to many palettes I have used over the years and recreate them so that I can photograph them again because at the time of using them, the book was not on my mind and I have no clean documentation or very good photos to use in my book. The second reason, is that I recently was approached by a collector who owns a Henri, Study of a Hand, and he asked me to investigate it. Hence, began my research into which palette Henri had used for this particular image. After much trial and error, I found that this Triangular Palette comes closest to a practical understanding of this image. It also allows me to date this image to somewhere between 1919-1920.

Henri did not use the Triangular Palette for very long, only about a year. And it was just one of many investigations that Henri was pursuing at this time. Henri will later adapt it to The Aluminum Palette design and drop his use of the Triangular Palette. Sloan, on the other hand, will consistently use this Triangular Palette throughout his career.

I have set the palette to Henri’s chosen colors in the format Sloan had provided in 1919. The lighteners to the right of the YG are the Sloan mixes, the ones to the left are Henri’s revision of the lighteners. I found the ones to the left more useful.

Here are the mixes that Henri used. The OY begins the sequence moving to the right, OY, Y, YG, G, GB, B, BP (bottom right corner), P, PR, R, no RO, O. In the center are the Hues made with earth tones. Direct center is the N (OY+BP) + (B+O). Zinc White. The lighter colors at the top act as the lighteners that substitute the pure white. There are several here because Henri had changed the lighteners several times as he was not happy with them. Henri found the palette too green. I found the palette too red.

Here is the palette after I have used it for one of my own images. Warm mixes to the left off-set by cooler neutrals to the right.

Henri compensated for this too green effect by having the Y hue dominate the palette, O + YG= Y hue (upper left corner mix. This is really somewhere between Y Bi and Y hue). And into this Y hue he built up the YG lights balanced by P (lightener at the bottom), plus some GB lightener (Viridian + white, right second down). In regard to the earth tones, Henri used Mars violet (just above the P) to intensify the purples in the lights and also to create a neutral with the G (top right).

What I found most intriguing about the palette was that the balance between the complements was perfect. They perfectly neutralized one another. Although, they themselves were kind of unusual. Take the B. The B was made by mixing cobalt blue with the G [Azo lemon + raw sienna + touch of viridian(this is my yellow) added to cobalt blue + B hue] + cobalt blue. It made a blue that was decidedly greenish. But when mixed with the orange, it made a wonderfully cool neutral gray. Whereas, the BP + OY, made a warm neutral gray that I really liked. Both neutrals were extremely useful.

If we look at the center of the palette, Henri chooses some standard earth tones that take the high intensity color and carry it to the neutral center. Mars violet is above the P, Indian red along the red line, light red along the O line, raw sienna along the OY line, raw umber along the YG line, R+G along the G line, and B hue (Maratta) along the B line, BP + OY along the BP line. These hues were used to lower the intensity of the color along the line traveling to the neutral center which then corresponds to its complement on the other side of the palette [This is called a scale by the group].

Henri’s Color Mixes for this 1919 palette:

Adapted by Judith Reeve

  • OY- cadmium yellow + raw sienna + zinc white
  • Y- azo yellow lemon + raw sienna + touch of viridian
  • YG- same as above + (cobalt blue + B hue)
  • G- Same as above+ more [cobalt+ B hue (more B hue than above)]
  • GB- viridian + zinc white
  • B- (cobalt + B hue) + G above
  • BP- cobalt + Mars violet
  • P- above + zinc white
  • PR- R + BP
  • R- PR 264 (permanent madder red) + Indian red + touch of cadmium red(Henri uses something called spectrum red)
  • O- light red + alizarin + zinc white

The design of this palette, the way it is laid out, was easy to use and pretty intuitive to mix one’s color choices. The only thing I found difficult was the quantity of colors. I found I did not use all the earth tones in the process of mixing. I did not use raw sienna, light red or Indian red (some but not too much). I did not use all the lighteners. I used the Y lightener, the G (viridian) lightener, the P lightener in two values [the one at the bottom and the one at the top left (P + zinc)]. I did not use the PR, at least in this image as it seemed repetitive. I noticed in Henri’s archive that he would also not use every color available for each image. He too was selective. Later, Sloan and Henri would mix the Bi colors from the adjacent colors rather than adding the earth tones to the higher intensity mix. This just points out that this palette can be manipulated in may ways to suit the needs of each image and one can easily shape it to one’s own intentions.