Analogies in the Key of Green


In the Key of GB

Summertime is a great season to get out and paint the landscape on site. But one of the challenges about the summer landscape, when you reside on the east coast, is the predominance of the color green. There is no avoiding it. During other seasons the dominant color can approach a neutral which allows for a change in key for each composition. Winter snow and its whiteness is a good example.

So if every summer landscape must have green in it the question becomes, how can I add variety to my images in the Key of green. When I refer to a Key, I am referring to an analogy in color. What is an analogy? An analogy occurs when one focuses the colors on their palette in a certain area of the color spectrum. An example of an analogy in the Key of Yellow would be to border the color Yellow with those colors that bracket Yellow on the palette. So my palette would be laid out as OY-Y-YG or O-OY-Y-YG-G. So if these are the dominant colors of my composition how do I balance an analogy like this so that the eye can find relief? The most common way would be to add the complement, which in this case would be Violet.

Robert Henri reflected on these types of analogies by painting many compositions in a certain Key as above. But one aspect that he added was a more subtle variety and range to the complement side that still allowed for the Key to dominate but also find a balance of colors harmonious with the Key. The examples I will use will reflect on Green as the dominate Key. The Key of Green looks like this:

Green analogy1

Henri took this analogy and added a range of more neutralized colors to act as a foil to the higher intensity of the Key that dominates the analogy. Henri created mixtures between the dominant analogy and the complement. Here is an example of an analogy in the Key of Green:

Green analogy2

The more neutralized colors are RObi, Rhue, VRbi. These colors are the mixes achieved by mixing an analogous color with the complement. Note that the Rhue must maintain its redness and is not completely neutralized. Another way to mix Rhue is with P+O. This gives one a clearer idea of its quality as a subdued red and less as a brown neutral. In this analogy, I found the VRbi the perfect color (a gray violet) to bridge the edge of green tree foliage against its’ background and also as a neutralizer on the ground plane. Rhue also came in handy for packed earth in the foreground of a field. These semi-neutralized colors reinforced the red complement without being too overt.

Here are some other analogies I have been using in the Key of GB or the Key of YG:

GB analogy

YG analogy

Note that in most cases, I used 3 colors set against the complement. But it is also possible to use 5 colors set against the complement. In these cases it is important to only mix the 3 core colors of the analogy because by mixing more than that you will lose the character of the analogy. The palette will begin to contain the missing colors that make a Key a strong statement. If I were to take the Key of Green and extend it beyond the GB to B, I could not take the blue and mix it with the red because I would then have purple and this would take it out of Key. Hence on the other side, I would end up with orange. Keeping purple and orange off the palette gives the Key of Green its character. But also note that these colors or near colors do appear as neutralized tones. When these colors are added to the composition one can feel the underlying energy they provide as a foil to the more intense colors of the dominant key.




Henri’s Exploration of Color Intensity


Robert Henri, “Lilly Cow”, 1915

In 1915, Henri and his artist friends met in Charles Winter’s studio to experiment with color. Attending were H.G. Maratta, John Sloan, George Bellows, Randall Davey and, of course, Henri and Winter. This group would meet periodically when a member artist felt that they had come upon an insight into color, theoretical or practical, or the set palette (which each was experimenting with individually). It must be noted also, that Maratta’s knowledge was sought after by the group who desired to practically apply his theories.

This day, they came to discuss pigments and their inherent intensity in their pure state. Henri, along with the others, produced a chart giving each pigment, in its pure state, a place along a scale of intensity between 3 and 13. 13 being the highest intensity and 3 being the lowest intensity with two scales below that range 1 (Hues that approach a neutral) and S (which combines a Hue with a Color to achieve what Henri notes at the bottom of the page: “The mixtures indicated for the 1 and S lines were those which seemed the most practical”).

Henri notes in his journal that, “the fixing of the higher intensity of each color was difficult. It was rather surprising that YG should be thought of as the most intense. There evidently was some confounding of value with intensity. Evidence of this may be found in the great step between P and YG. This P while very dark proved itself to be a very powerful (intense) pigment when mixed with white.” (Notebook: Artists’ Pigments I, folder 19, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Here is a brief indication of the chart which has been reproduced in William Innes Homer’s book, “Henri and His Circle”, page 188:

13                                                                    YG

11    G  GB                                          OY     Y       G

9                                      R  RO  O

7               B  BP        PR             Below each color the intensity descends to S

5                           P

3               B hue    P hue

1 All the Hues for each color

S Hue+complementary color for each color


The original chart is easier to see the relationships (I cannot reproduce it here without permission from Yale). So please refer to Homer, page 188. Henri, subsequently, went on to produce many charts for different paintings, creating a scale of intensity for that particular image or series of images. So in one image Y may be the most intense and in another O or GB. So although the chart above indicates a pigments intensity right from the tube, it is not the only scale on which to create a palette.

What is interesting about this new approach is that the notes for a palette are chosen on a diagonal (one never uses the entire palette in an image). This diagonal form maintains that when there is a change in color, there is also a change in intensity. Therefore, each color occupies a specific intensity. Henri states, “For instance, take Y- to move from Y to OY will not be a horizontal move- as OY (9),Y (9) but with Y (9) and OY (7). If the next step is to O that O could be moved to (9) or of course move further down- or up( if possible) in the scale of intensities.” (Notebook: Artists’ Pigments, folder 19). So if Y is at (9) intensity, the next colors along the spectrum on either side are not at a (9) scale of intensity, but are of a higher (11) or lower (7) scale of intensity.

This idea can easily be interwoven into Maratta’s approach. Maratta being in Winter’s studio as part of the experimentation is telling. Maratta may have had the most insight into how intensity can dominate. Chords in the Maratta system inherently create a hierarchy of intensity. The dominant color of the chord stays near its full intensity within an image while simultaneously, floating  amidst a series of colors that are less intense (bi colors and hues). This is what gives chords their feeling of luminosity.

This chart becomes for Henri a point of experimentation over the next couple of years. Henri moves away from strict chord relationships (Maratta) to one where a hierarchy of intensity within the composition of a painting begins to preoccupy him. One can observe this in the paintings themselves from this period. They become largely about pushing color intensity to the point where spacial depth becomes shallower through large areas of the background being occupied by intense colors applied in a flat manner. An example of this is another version of “Lilly Cow”. Henri takes this course to its inevitable end where form borders on abstraction. Henri, who loved the beauty of form, backs away from this precipice.

These years of experimentation with color intensity informs Henri’s work until his last years. Although, he abandons color intensity at its extreme end, he maintains the hierarchy of intensity as set by Maratta through his system of musical chords. By 1916, Henri has integrated his new understanding of color intensity into Maratta’s chord system. But now Henri has become a master of color in all of its aspects while simultaneously maintaining his love of form. Henri always returns to his central pursuit- the constant search for true expression of soul in his portraits which he referred to as “My People”. Color intensity has now amplified that expression.




A Palette of Two Triads with Varying Intensities

Nude Study


Over the last two weeks, I have been experimenting with a new palette. Some of my palettes are very complex and need much time to be developed and refined. But sometimes, I like to have a palette that is very simple and can be used with any subject. This is important especially when one is painting away from one’s own studio and is in an unfamiliar space with different variables such as light quality. I have been apt to use a triad of primaries, red, yellow and blue in these situations. I usually create a hierarchy of intensity within the triad by adding an earth tone as one of the primaries. Some variations on this are:

Triads with Diff intensities

These palettes express a variation of intensity in one of the primaries and have been in application, used very successfully. But over the past two weeks, I have experimented with this palette:

two triads high low intensities


This is a set of two triads, the first with a high intensity chroma and the second with a low intensity chroma. This seems like a lot of repetition. But what I found is that rather than trying to subdue a color that was too intense, I used its low intensity version. An example would be an orange made with Cadmium vermilion + Cadmium yellow + White vs. English red + Raw sienna+ White. I also made a decision about the quality of the light source. While painting this figure study, the model was illuminated by an electric incandescent light, with a cooler sky light above. In this situation, the intensity of color came from the incandescent light. This left the shadows more neutral. There was also the play of a cooler light on the top planes that added some neutrality and temperature variation on the light side as well as the shadow side.

So in using this palette, I decided that the light side should contain the most intensity and therefore used the high intensity chroma triad to express the primary light source. And I used the low intensity chroma triad to express the shadow side and all receding planes including the background. This gave an immediate feeling of projection to the forms of the figure. The exception being that the triads intermingled in the neutrals along the shadow edge and the reflected light on the top planes on the shadow side. I found that adding a touch of cobalt blue and english red to the top planes on the shadow side united the two triads perfectly through the cobalt blue ( high intensity palette) and the english red (low intensity palette).

This arrangement of the palette with its primary concern for the light source and its quality of intensity and color temperature was very successful. I have yet to experiment with the reverse situation, where the light source is cooler and most of the color intensity resides in the half tones and shadow side. But I believe that it will work in that situation as well, as long as I consciously organized and decipher the quality of light on my subject and use the palette accordingly.

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