It is important as a painter to set tasks for oneself that sharpen one’s skills, one’s eye or one’s understanding of visual phenomena. Sometimes I take a on a challenge found in the work of a non-artist, such as the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. An example taken from his, “Remarks on Colour”:
“Someone who is familiar with reddish-green should be in a position to produce a colour series which starts with red and ends with green and which perhaps even for us constitutes a continuous transition between the two. We would then discover that at the point where we always see the same shade, e.g. of brown, this person sometimes sees brown and sometimes reddish-green. It may be, for example, that he can differentiate between the colours of two chemical compounds that seem to us to be the same colour and he calls one brown and the other reddish-green” (Wittgenstein, “Remarks on Colour”, p. 3-4)
Do I have the visual subtelty in my color to differentiate and explore the variables that occur between red and green, marking differences in color and intensity as well as value?
Most times, I take a challenge from an artist, like Robert Henri who was such a great teacher in his own day as well as today. Years ago, I spent much time in the archive of Henri housed at Yale Universities’ Bienekie Manuscript Library. I took meticulous notes over those years. Now, I spend much time evaluating and experimenting with the many theories regarding color that Henri explored directly or just touched upon in the hope of one day getting back to that idea.
One such idea that Henri experimented with later in his life was something he termed, “varying intensities” (this is not the Winter palette of the early years which also did account for intensity). He would take a color such as yellow and place it in a central position in a composition. Then, he would take that color and slowly decrease its intensity, moving away from the point of focus (within the composition) until he reached a near neutral color. (Although it would be interesting if he had passed the point of reaching a neutral and further expand from that neutral to its near complement at the other end- expanding on Wittgenstein’s remark). This gave the composition an immediate sense of focus because one’s eye is drawn to the area of greater intensity.
Henri used this technique in his backgrounds, especially of portraits, to give a heightened sense of emotion and intensity. One is drawn to the focal point of the face. He was also able to achieve a greater sense of spatial depth immediately behind the head creating an open and movable space. In my own experiments, I have tried to give a feeling of the light radiating from the figure (hence I refer to my own method as radiating intensities) – a sense of emanation that slowly loses intensity as it approaches the perimeter of the canvas. This technique creates an inherent magnetism to the figure. My attempts in this have been more subtle, whereas, Henri exaggerated the effect, at times, to see how far he could take it and still achieve a sense of realism.
Wittgenstein’s quote has made me consider different possibilities as I have suggested in parenthesis. He indicates achieving that middle neutral using the complement, which is the more common method to render this effect. Henri, on the other hand, hardly ever used the direct complement. In most cases, he would use a near-complement. This allowed for each color to maintain a certain identity as it approached the neutral. An example of a near-complement would be yellow – blue/violet. As these colors approach a neutral, one can still sense their components within the neutral. One would not achieve a perfect brown/ or gray and , in a sense, this appears more vital than a perfect neutral. The colors are never entirely obliterated.
I have used this technique almost entirely in backgrounds- like Henri- but it would be interesting to experiment with a still-life, wherein one could direct the viewers attention compositionally by varying the intensity of a central color- shared by several objects. One could guide the viewer visually among the objects, directing them along a certain path of exploration through the strict use of intensity. Just a random thought. I’ll have to put this on my list of winter experiments.