Achieving Luminosity

Figure with Yellow Drape

This past fall there was a wonderful show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on John Singer Sargent. One aspect that I really liked about the exhibit is that there were many smaller works that Sargent had painted of his friends and of other artists as well as small figurative studies. The important thing to remember is that in these situations, Sargent was not trying to please a client. Sargent allows himself to experiment in these paintings and really be free to express or re-express his direction artistically. In many ways, one could see how his work matured from imitating the Spaniards to Impressionism to his mature decorations.

One thing that I was struck by was Sargent’s feeling of luminosity in these images. The feeling of light seemed to emanate from the figures. How did Sargent achieve this effect? Luminosity is not about strong color, but the balance between color intensity and the neutral. In most of the images, Sargent focuses on one dominant color that carries an intensity on a foil of a pervading neutral. This neutral could be black or umber (which he used extensively in the early work) or a combination of complements (which surfaces during his experimentation with Impressionism) or a combination of a dominant triad ( a red, yellow, blue/black). This foil of the neutral allows the intensity of the purer color to really be felt. It maximizes the feeling of light by contrast. Also, a neutral tends to take on the color of the complement when placed close to a purer color. Thereby creating an innate harmony that is subtle and elusive.

Kneeling Figure2

Another method that he used was his control of values. I found on observation that Sargent creates the greatest contrast of value, not within the confines of the figure, which one would expect, but between the figure and the background. There is an over-all unity of value within the figure that keeps it luminous and light filled. This stands in contrast to a darker, more neutral background. This is not typical of 19th century painting. In most cases the cast shadows within the figure are emphasized to create a feeling of the projection of form in space. By subduing the need for contrast within the confines of the figure and holding the values tight, the figure as a unit, feels luminous.

I am not saying that all of Sargent’s work falls within these parameters. But the work that sparked my imagination as an artist were those images he painted solely for himself or among friends. There he was the experimenter. As an example, the portrait of Mancini, is in many ways, Sargent’s  exploration into Mancini’s own method. It almost looks like a Mancini painting. This type of dialogue between peers is most intriguing to study.

Figure with White Drape2

My work of late, including these small figure studies, is a product of my own dialogue with Sargent. Through this conversation with the master, I have experimented with these ideas in order to incorporate them into my own work. Not to be ‘Sargent like’ but to further explore the possibilities of paint.

(I’ve added these images to my gallery which I invite you to visit.)

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.

Unifying the Autumn Landscape with a Super- Color

coming autumn

As fall begins in the Catskill mountains, I am reminded of Robert Henri’s insistence on being aware of the dominant color of the light which illuminates a landscape (or a studio for that matter). Autumn is a challenging season to paint as the foliage changes to brilliant colors. In a single composition, one can have various trees with a high chroma – red, red-orange, orange, orange-yellow, yellow, yellow-green seen against blue or violet hills. These colors can easily clash or appear to lack atmosphere in a composition. It is important to find the balance yet maintain the integrity of the visual experience.

This year, I painted an expansive farm field at the Peter’s Farm up the road from my house four times from slightly different angles. It is one of my favorite spots, locally, to paint. My goal was to achieve a unity of effect, harnessing the various colors under one dominant color. This dominant color is called by Henri, the super-color. It is dominant because it is the color of the light from the sun as it passes through the atmosphere. This color permeates all other colors. The American landscape painter, Edgar Payne use to locate this color and premix it on the palette. Then he would add this color to all of the local colors in the composition. This works very well. It creates neutrals where a complementary color is contained in the local color. Therefore, one achieves a simple unity that is held together by the super-color. My first study followed this method strictly.

Peter's View

Although my painting felt very successful, with certain dominant colors this method, at times, created too much neutrality and I lost some of the brilliance that I was after. So in my second study, I added the super-color as a premix to all receding objects, which appeared to be slowly engulfed in the atmosphere and left those that were closer more as I visually experienced them, still being conscious of that dominant color. But the foreground still called for more unity.

In order to tie the foreground to the background, I added a secondary dominant color that accounted for the reflected light emanating from the dome of the sky. This is usually predominantly bluish, but in the fall this changes and often times is the complement to the dominant color. This addition of reflected lights on the top planes and into the shadows  complemented the dominant color creating more variety in the unity of the space. Because at times, the complement could be used in the reflected lights, it visually created a greater dynamic feeling of color and the sensation of illumination. This is ultimately the goal.

My last painting (top image) brought all these investigations together combining the dominant super-color as the main light source with a secondary color describing the reflected lights. The dominant super-color was an orange-yellow with a violet red (visually a red-orange but slightly pinker) and for the reflected lights, I used a green-blue. And this really worked, the RO balanced by the GB. So the image contained a unity on two levels and therefore appears balanced.

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