Finding Effective Greens to use in Landscape Painting

Judith Reeve, “Hazy Morning, High Meadow,” 16 X 22, oil, 2022

For the last few months, I have been experimenting with a new series of greens on my landscape palette. There are innumerable greens in a multitude of variations in the landscape of the Catskills where I live. Each tree has its individual quality of green due to its species. One can visually pull out a specific tree on a forested hill by its value of green and the color intensity of that green. The ground plane also has an acidic yellow-green so evident in the Northeast. It is a challenge to set all these greens down on the canvas in a satisfying relationship that speaks of one’s emotions in that moment and the phenomena of experience before one’s eyes.

Paint has its limitations. Pigment can only give you a mere reflection of the color and variety of nature before you. It can only act as a correspondence to your visual experience, and the artist is never completely satisfied with this transference. The painting can only serve as a signifier, a place setting of that wholistic intimacy of that painting moment.

Still, the artist must study how to get the variety of colors necessary to translate nature. And for me, greens in the landscape are some of the most challenging colors to mix and then later feel satisfied with. I found from experience that those intense yellow greens, present everywhere on the East Coast in summer, are vexing upon post-completion of the image. So in June, I attempted to increase the range of my green mixes, seeking a variety in color temperature, and intensity. Here are some of my experiments.

Judith Reeve, “Landscape Greens with semi-neutrals,” oils, 2022

Above is a chart I created to assist with my landscape painting. If you look at the top line, I have created a series of greens moving from YG, G 1, G 2, G 3, to GB. I made the mixes by combining Indanthrene blue (W&N) + Yellow [Azo yellow lemon (Old Holland’s, Scheveingen yellow lemon) + some raw sienna] at full intensity. This Indanthrene blue is new for me, and I chose it this season because it appears as a more true blue than Ultramarine, and it is also more intense like Prussian blue. The samples of these colors appear on the top line, right.

In the right column, I have placed a series of colors descending from P, BP, B Hue to R. These colors are a little difficult to see as pure colors, but one can see the changes they create in the rows. Notice that the P, BP, B Hue, and R each contain some amount of red, the complement to the green. It is relatively easy to get high-intensity greens but extremely challenging to get greens that are semi-reduced in intensity but remain visually vital. If one just uses red to get these semi-neutrals, you end up with a minimal range of color temperature.

To understand this chart, I have taken each high-intensity green along the top line and mixed it with one of the colors in the right column. Each column of green displays the semi-neutralized mixes as that green descends toward its complement of red. For example, G 1 appears at full intensity on the top line; G 1 + P [Ultra. + PR 264 + Cad. R] on line 2; G 1 + BP [Ultra. + PR 264] line 3; G 1 + B Hue [P + G] line 4; G 1 + R [Mars red] line 5.

Through my practice, I found that the mixes generated below the G 2, G 3, and GB were excellent. The most valuable combinations for the summer landscape have been G 2 +P; G 2 + BP; G 3 + P; G 3 + BP; G 3 + R. The GB combination helped add variety to my darks, especially the GB + P and the GB + R. But now that the green in the trees is waning and fall has set upon the landscape, I am using more of the BP combinations, including the YG + BP and G 1 + BP (and G 1 + P). As the leaves turn to reds and golds, I find myself adding VR to many of my greens, creating another row of green mixes that is presently not on my chart.

What the chart has done for me is open my mind to new mixing triangulations. I had probably mixed many of these combinations before, but because I have made it conscious, my mixing has been more directed and accurate to my lived experience before nature. Plus, I am more satisfied post-painting with the harmony in my color arrangements.

If you love to experiment as I do, consider a Zoom session with me, and I can assist you with color mixing or another element of your painting practice. Use the contact page to get in touch. Enjoy painting!

Robert Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922 

Judith Reeve, My version of Robert Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922-E

As my readers know, Robert Henri conducted intensive research into color palettes and contemporary color theory. But he also studied colored pigments to learn about their archival permanency and whether certain pigments could be mixed without affecting their integrity. Post WW I, artists’ pigments became corrupted with impurities because the war damaged Europe and its industrial complex. America had previously imported many pigments used to manufacture artists’ oil paints from Germany, Holland, and northern Europe. With this infrastructure damaged, artists’ pigments lacked quality. Henri, along with H.G. Maratta and George Bellows began an organization to support artists, The League of American Artists. Henri was tasked with studying artist pigments and producing a guide as to the permanency of artists’ oil paints on the market to help artists maintain a high level of material integrity in their work.

In Henri’s Pigment Notebooks, you see Henri looking at the pigment strength, purity, and lightfastnes of the color of, say, ultramarine blue and comparing it across all available brands. Henri also compared material, and chemical analysis by leading experts such as Blockx, Toch, Church, and others including some manufacturers like Winsor & Newton. Henri produced a document for The League of American Artists to be distributed to its members. It was in the style of a workbook in which artists could fill blank pages within the book as they conducted their personal research into their paint and pigments. This book was never published as the League disbanded for unknown reasons, probably financial.

What came out of this research by Henri was the development of a series of palette designs based on his study of pigments both organic and inorganic as well as, new synthetic pigments. Henri referred to these palettes as “The Permanent Palettes” because he was sure of their inherent integrity, and that each pigment could be intermixed on this palette with guarantees as to its archival quality. Henri began this series of palettes around 1920-21. I have reproduced here Henri’s Permanent Palette 1922-E. I chose to work with this palette because Henri synthesized and harmonized the Permanent Palette design over several versions landing on this final palette.

In this Permanent Palette, 1922-E, Henri’s goal was “to build up to color.” He begins on the top row (horizontal) by keeping his tones deep in value and suppressed in intensity. Most colors along this top-line contain some earth pigments with the exception of viridian [third from right], which suppress the chroma. Then in the descending columns, Henri increases the value and the intensity simultaneously in the middle values. Then, as the value increases with the addition of white added to the mixtures, the color loses its intensity. Therefore, the bottom of each column contains colors that are reduced in intensity by adding white, which is a neutralizer. The light tones of VR, BV, and GB, Henri will use as his lighteners (these will be used as substitutes for the raw white). So what you see is a progression from a dark semi-neutralized tone, to a middle value of high intensity followed by a reduction in intensity in the lightest notes. The highest chroma will fall within the halftone range on a portrait. [Note that the above version of this palette, I have replicated from Henri’s notes. I have also added wax medium to this version to suppress the reflection on the pigments. This has slightly lightened the overall value of the palette in this photo reproduction].

Intensity is concentrated in the middle-value range in this palette. Henri’s paintings at this time express color emerging out of a darkened neutrality as in “Bernadita,” 1922. These images seem a throwback to an earlier Henri style and may reflect Henri’s own emotions about the war in Europe. They are reminiscent of his earlier Spanish types. But these new images do not rely on simple blacks and browns as his earlier work had done. Henri imbues this new work with color that simmers below the surface and is not immediately felt. These deeper tones interact with the more intense colors in the middle range through simultaneous contrast- deep complementary tones highlighting the higher chroma areas. These images are experiments that help Henri realize his command of color in the late Irish portraits of children of 1926-28. Henri, in the late portraits, consolodates his color expression and allows color to vibrate on the surface of the canvas and within the viewer’s mind through optical transformations.

Judith Reeve, Color Field of mixes derived from Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922-E

My interest in these “Permanent Palettes” connects to my recent interest in George Inness’ landscapes. There is a prevailing sense of suppressing a portion of the full palette through neutral mixes and allowing other parts to reach full chroma. Combining these opposing levels of intensity creates a dynamic force within the image. By holding this force down, one actually gains in color power. It is an interplay that allows me to understand more clearly, the optical effects achieved through the juxtaposition of the large masses, the power of the neutral, and the movement between color temperature in the modeling of forms.

This type of experimentation opens one up to new ways of working and thinking. Henri’s goal was to engage in each painting moment as a new experience in which the artist brings to bear his whole being, not relying on rote habits of past painting methods.

“Personal experimentation is revealing, and, once you get into it, immensely engaging.”

Robert Henri, Art Spirit, p. 60