Color Temperature and The Super Color


One of the most difficult phenomena to discern is color temperature. Many contemporary paintings are primarily cool or primarily warm but when one observers some of the great paintings of the masters there is a wonderful balance in temperature. Robert Henri states in The Art Spirit that, “the effect of brilliancy is to be obtained principally from the oppositions of cool colors with warm colors, and the oppositions of grave colors with bright colors. If all the colors are bright there is no brightness.”(p.57) The same could be said, if all the colors are cool ( or warm) there is no luminosity and the “living” element seems to be missing.

As part of my practice before I begin a painting, I seek two things- an overall color temperature map and an idea of the super color. First I identify the super color. By super color, I refer to that overall color that encompasses the subject and the space. It will influence all the individual colors of the objects- it is the primary color of the light, the identifying color of the entire composition. Henri describes it as such, “there is a color over all colors which unites them and which is more important than the individual colors. At sunset the sun glows. The color of the grasses, figures and the houses may be lighter or darker or different, but over each there is the sunset glow.” (Ibid.,p.58)

Identifying the color of the light itself will influence the color temperature of the subject. So when I map out the color temperature, I always keep this in mind. If  I am working under north light, I might observe the following: the general light is cool ( violet, blue or cool green) so the pattern might be- lights cool; half tones warmer; shadow edge cool; shadow warm; reflected light cool; and the highlight being a mirror of the source itself will be cool. Other things to remember are that reflected light mimics the general light source and contrary to this- the reflected light that occurs when illuminated flesh reflects back into the shadow area is warm; and where flesh meets flesh, that dark accent will also be warm. This map reflects my belief that we must first have an understanding of what can happen and then seek through observation of a specific situation what is actually occurring before us. It is difficult to see what one has no knowledge of. One must merge what one knows with what one sees. My friend, Deane Keller wrote in The Draftsman’s Handbook -“Theory- the way things should work- must submit to the way things actually work- but both make their contribution.” (p.25) When one has knowledge of  scientific phenomena, then one can look for it in nature. When one does not fully understand what occurs then it is difficult to observe it. How many landscapes were painted prior to Jules Breton or Monet that did not recognize blue shadows (the reflection from the dome of the sky) in nature?

Observation is key to recognizing the variations in color temperature. The map is theory and must submit to nature but it remains an important expression of the variety necessary to achieve “luminosity” and a sense of the “living” element.

The Complexity of Color

Image of color conbination used in the painting by Robert Henri discussed in post
Image of color chord used in the painting by Robert Henri discussed in post

I recently attended an exhibition at the New Britain Museum of  American Art in Ct. The show was called The Eight and American Modernism. There were several paintings by Robert Henri from the Milwaukee Museum of Art that I have only seen in reproductions. How refreshing to view them up close. There was one painting from a private collector that I had never seen before but had read some of Henri’s color notes regarding it in his archive. This painting, The Dancer of Delhi (Betalo Rubino), was truly magnificent. It contained in a summary form all that Henri was about and much of what he strived for.

In this piece Henri uses the model as a vehicle to explore  the complex color relationships in a chord with multiple intensities for each color in the triad. Dancer of Delhi was built on the chord of R-YG-BP with the subordinate triad as RO bi, GB bi, PR c. Each color appears in several intensities- the R approaches a pure state in the lips and adornments and appears in a lower intensity in the large drape on which the model is reclining; it is present in the flesh, neutralized by white and by the YG. The flesh tone was achieved through the main chord of primarily the YG and the BP with touches of the R in the warmer passages; the shadow area containing RO bi with warm accents of PR c and the cast shadows overlaid with the BP. The BP and the GB bi appear in different intensities throughout- combined in the foreground and side by side in the background and neutralized with white in the top of the model. And touches of pure color appear in the jewelry and beads (very like Frans Hals). It was amazing to see so much color in a piece yet still appear very realistic- realism with the inner intensity of the artist very much present.

What I found most striking about the piece other than its marvelous and sensuous color is the amazing simplicity inherent in it. The figure is simply painted and the flesh tones varying only in temperature to achieve form- the value (in regards to black and white) having very little variation. Color temperature being the primary means to achieve the modeling. This is one of Henri’s insights-” The effect of brilliancy is to be obtained principally from the oppositions of cool colors with warm colors, and the opposition of grave colors with bright colors… Form can be modeled in black and white, but there are infinitely greater possibilities in modeling through the warmth and coolness of color.” ( Henri, The Art Spirit, p.57 and p.62)

(If you end up viewing the painting on-line or in the catalogue reproduction, it is very dark and too warm with too much contrast- although it is imperfect it will at least give one an idea of the painting.)