Intensity Palette- A New Investigation

Judith Reeve, “Winter Maples”, Oil on Linen, 16″x 22″.

As stated in my previous blog post, I have been actively investigating Henri’s Intensity Palettes of 1915-16. Presently, I am using the 50% Intensity Palette that sets a balance between the warm and cool side of the spectrum. The warm colors, RO, O, OY, Y, YG, G appear at full intensity and the complementary cools, GB, B, BP, P, PR, R appear at a reduced intensity. Every complement combination, such as red to green, contains a high intensity color set against one of low intensity. Until last week, I have used this palette in my studio work exclusively. Last week, I attempted to use this palette in a plein-air setting. This was challenging because I found that the palette worked best when there were rich, deep darks off-set by lighter warm tones. So I needed to choose my subject carefully. I figured the winter was the best time to use this palette as I would not be at the mercy of the many greens of East coast foliage.

The first composition I chose was a line of trees against the snow. These tree trunks are back-lit, and in shadow, set against a brilliant field of snow in full sun. This was an afternoon painting with the sun low on the horizon. I chose this composition because the tree trunks, being in shadow, contained many rich and varied darks of deep reds, green-blues and purples. The light snow was a brilliant white containing orange, red-orange, yellow. I have painted this group of trees several times, but this particular day provided many interesting finds.

Because of the high contrast between the white snow and the dark trunks of the trees in shadow, there were many colored edges. These colored edges were more brilliant in the afternoon light than when I had previously painted these trees in the morning light (Both images are with snow). Because the snow was directly lit, the intensity of the edges was very apparent. If you look at Goethe’s Theory of Colored edges, edges become more colorful and intense when there is a dark disk upon a white surface or a white disk upon a dark surface. These two scenarios of high contrast produce the phenomena. But also, if the dark object is narrow enough, light will appear to wrap around the narrow dark and effect it’s interior coloring. In my painting situation, this did not appear in the wider trunks, but did appear in some of the narrower off-shoots to the main trunk. In my image, there appeared two different colored edges along the wide tree trunks, a red-yellow and a blue. The red-yellow appeared when the dark of the trunk seemed to encroach on the lighter, white snow and the blue appeared when the white snow encroached on the dark trunks. This being an optical phenomena, it’s appearance fluctuated, but always returned.

In regards to the set palette, I found it allowed for a beautiful combination of colors. I loved the inter-play between the deep reds and green-blues that occurred in the shadows. These were off-set by YG reflected lights. I also loved how the oranges in the white snow activated the blue snow shadows. These blues, I made with a substantially reduced blue that was excellent because it did not compete chromatically with the oranges of the white snow. The light oranges appeared more vital against such a blue. Another inter-play occurred in the larger part of the composition between the OY grasses and the BV shadows. I also found that the reduced Rhue, Yhue and Bhue were excellent neutrals from which the high chromatic colors could be explored. These neutrals provided a foil upon which the more intense colors could activate a simultaneous contrast.

My next composition contains a pine tree trunk emerging out of a dark wooded area. This small pochade has me excited to further explore this palette in a plein-air setting.

Judith Reeve, “Pine- Winter Light”, oil on board, study 6″x 8″.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

3 thoughts on “Intensity Palette- A New Investigation”

  1. Judith,

    I just received your first installment, having just signed up. Your work is clean and fresh. You can almost feel the cold air on your skin and the chill as you inhale its freshness. Keep up the good work!

    Having restarted my art career, and stumbled across your website several days ago, I thought I ‘d sample the waters. I have known of the Ross palette for years and have used it more and more. It is great; it’s power is unlimited. The artists that are successful, if they don’t use it directly, apply its principles, unknowingly.

    I have found his books a bit cryptic. Ross was not real clear about the mechanics of making the palettes work. I descovered a separate source describing their usage which negates much of his nomenclature. Of course, as artists, we can always defer to his books for advice.

    So, thanks for you efforts and observations.


    Bill Reed

    1. Thank you for the good comments. You mentioned another source that investigates Denman Ross’ palettes. I would be interested to know of the work. Ross is very difficult to mine. I have received most of my understanding of his palettes from Robert Henri who for several years corresponded with Ross and implemented some of his palettes.There were many insights that Ross had in regards to color mixing and achieving a variety of color temperature within a set-palette. Henri, later, abandons the use of Ross’ palettes for ones that are more flexible with the mixing. But Henri carries several influences forward in his work and maintains these insights throughout the late Irish paintings.In the near future, I hope to publish an investigation into Henri’s palettes and will include much about Ross as well.
      Thanks Again.

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