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A Modern Approach to Studying Light and Color

Color Magazine - A Modern Approach to Studying Light and Color At the turn of the 20th century; Provincetown, Massachusetts, was a fishing village that resembled the European coastal towns favored by the French Impressionists. Charles W. Hawthorne, a young protégé of the great American Impressionist William Merritt Chase, was attracted to Provincetown's luminous clarity of light. In 1899, Hawthorne established The Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, where he taught the tenets of impressionist painting, along with his own ideas about color theory; to aspiring young artists.

Hawthorne's reputation as a great painter and educator attracted scores of artists to the small fishing village, and his unconventional approach to teaching color theory became legendary. Marching students down to the waterfront, he would make them paint models posing in the glaring sun, using only a 2 putty knife. The clumsy tool forced students to apply large dollops of oil paint, making it impossible to render the model's features. The object of painting these "mud-heads," as they were called, was to capture the effects of sunlight on the figure using only large, simple masses of color.

Mud-head painting There was such enthusiasm for Hawthorne's teaching that after his death in 1934, the book Hawthorne on Painting (Pittman Publishing Corporation, New York, New York), based on student notes of his lectures and demonstrations, was published. The school continued to thrive under the direction of one of the master's more outstanding students, Henry Hensche.

Beginning in 1935, Hensche developed an entirely different approach to teaching students to see and paint light. He had them begin by painting colored blocks outdoors in the brilliant sunlight (Figure 1 and 2). Focusing on these simple shapes made it easier to see how colors are influenced by changes in the atmospheric conditions. They became aware of how the light changed throughout the day, from one season to another, and under various weather conditions. The process of painting these "block studies" became such an effective training tool that it is still used today at the school as a foundation course.

Hensche led The Cape Cod School of Art for more than 50 years until he retired to Louisiana, where he taught privately. During their years in Provincetown, both Hensche and Hawthorne remained dedicated to a realistic approach to oil painting. Their students branched out into other styles and painting media, continuously building upon the fundamental skills they had learned along the beaches of Cape Cod.

I was a student of Hensche, and in 1986 I was given the great honor of becoming the director of the school. I invited many friends and students to teach with me and bring their individual approaches to the tenets of color theory. Now, I want to share Hawthorne's time-honored theory of color and light and its vast potential.

Cape Cod School of Art workshopBlock studies


In order to see and paint atmosphere, one must understand that when we first view something, we see large patterns of lights and darks before we notice details. For example, when we recognize a friend walking toward us from a distance, we first recognize the shape of his or her body and face before we notice his or her shoes or jewelry. As the person comes closer, some details gradually become more obvious, and we may take note of the hair and eye color. Finally we may observe how the warm orange color of his or her shirt clashes with the cool aqua hue of his or her pants.

Hensche called this phenomenon "the science of seeing." I prefer to remind my students to follow the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Simon) and simplify shapes, values, and temperature.

Learning to see affects many disciplines: drawing masses, establishing value relationships, expressing light and shade, and adding color and refinements. Because it is a complicated process, Hensche would not allow beginners to paint on canvases or supports larger than 16" x 20'. He believed it was hard enough for the untrained eye to get to the fourth stage of seeing the immeasurable amount of color changes within form, so he limited the scale of the students' studies.

With very little detail, an artist can establish a scene through contrast, depth, and temperature choices. Once the artist establishes these elements, he or she will be able to see and paint more colors within these masses and give a painting more distinction. By adding other strokes of color into the first masses, the painting will appear finished.

Woman with a Hat by John Kilroy Most students begin working in oil and then gravitate toward watercolor, pastel, or acrylics. They are encouraged to adapt what they have learned to a medium, subject matter, and style that best suits them.

Because students are first introduced to color theory using palette knives, they often leave the workshops thinking that a knife is the only tool one can use to keep color rich and vibrant, but that is not the case. The great Impressionist painters-both French and American-used brushes. The palette knife is simply a teaching tool that prevents students from obsessing over details. It also helps them keep the colors clean and controlled.

John Kilroy came to the school after years of painting alla prima, that is, completing pictures in a single outdoor session. After studying at The Cape Cod School of Art, he began to incorporate rich colors in his vigorous paintings, integrating an alla prima approach with scumbling. Woman With a Hat is reminiscent of the great American Impressionists Edmund Tarbell (1862- 193 8) and Frank Benson (1862- 1951). Kilroy uses layers effectively, creating a gauzy feeling in the woman's dress.

Portrait of Susan by John Kilroy The brushstrokes in Woman With a Hat overlap the rich colors. A viewer can easily see the layers of yellows, pinks, and blues in the sunlit areas, while the shadows of the dress are made up of blues, violets, and golds. The vibration that is created when one color note is painted over the other helps calm the expressive colors that were painted first.

Kilroy's bold painting Portrait of Susan is a melody of brushwork. For the swift impression of the hair, he used strong colors, such as the green warmth under her neck and the cerulean accent of the hair over the brow. In the face, these same bold strokes create the plane turns in the forehead and the shadow of the nose.


Moor Study The reproduction of my own paintings on these pages illustrate a range of subjects, lighting conditions, and techniques. Moorlands and Moors, Sunset Effect are rather small sketches done on location that helped me resolve compositional ideas for larger studio pictures. Moors Study, Last Summer was a monumental undertaking. The scale of the picture intimidated me so much that I left the stretched canvas on the floor of my studio for two years before I found the courage to work on it.

My palette of colors consists of warm and cool pigments of every color. The yellows include cadmium yellow lemon (a cool yellow), cadmium yellow light (a primary yellow). For orange I choose either cadmium yellow, cadmium yellow deep (very warm), or cadmium orange (a warm, true secondary color). The reds include cadmium scarlet (a warm red), cadmium red light (a cooler red), cadmium red, permanent rose, and alizarin crimson. My palette of violets and blues includes ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, and permanent magenta or dioxazine violet. The greens include permanent green light or viridian green. The earth tones are Mars violet or burnt sienna and yellow ochre and Indian red.

MoorlandMoors Sunset Effect

I start painting with the most important main masses, or divisions, of light and shade. I do not mix any of my first notes, except with white to lighten the value. This keeps the starting notes rich and highly saturated and helps me avoid starting out the painting with muddy or dull colors.

Sunset Over the Moors Understanding my procedure helps artists gain a greater sensitivity to color perception, and it encourages them to use paint in a more vigorous and exciting way. The first requirement is to paint directly from the palette, using as pure a color as possible (by "pure" I mean out of the tube, adding white only to lighten if necessary). I select the colors to best represent the major masses of the composition or the areas of sun and shade. Generally, using the warmest notes for the sun planes and cool notes for shade areas makes the start vibrant and colorful. Placing pure pigments down for starting notes, no matter how outrageous it seems, eventually teaches you to see the truth of such overstatement. The more you exaggerate color, the more correct it will look. Therefore, you are actually learning to see it.

In keeping with the tradition of the school, students are encouraged to use palette knives instead of brushes. After placing all of the starting notes, students evaluate them to determine if sun and shade planes or masses have been established correctly. The painting may look abstract and geometric, but with the right color and value relationships there is a surprising reality to the composition.

Little Falls Afterward, when observing a greater variety of color within the masses or when it is time to establish half tones, these colors are lightly layered over the starting notes. This technique, called scumbling, helps avoid the chance of colors overmixing, which causes graying or dulling of the pigment. Sometimes too much paint underneath mixes with these second notes, so it is important to find the right mix of thick and thin. Many artists prefer to let their starting notes dry completely before layering, keeping the color vibration extremely clean and vital.

Sometimes I paint wet-in-wet to allow the colors and layers to blend. By using this technique, I create a variety of new colors. However, too much blending can reduce the vitality of the colors, and the colors may appear grayed or muddy. I do not use white pigment as a color, only to lighten the value of other colors. If I need a gray, I mix complements. My paintings employ the use of grayed colors, because I prefer to have subtleties in my work.

Too much pure color can sometimes be overwhelming. I believe the eye needs a place to rest, but this is purely a personal choice.


Yellow House Another important foundation in Hawthorne's color theory is starting with simple masses. The obvious advantages are that the eye fills in the blanks and large areas of color create very strong imagery. You will be amazed at how little you need to complete a piece of artwork. I never even think about adding second layers of colors until I am sure that the starting notes are perfect.

These first layers establish both the light effect and the composition. However, the details and textures give paintings individuality and distinction.these details are not linear elements but a greater variety of colors within masses. The more strokes or spots of color that are added within a mass, the more finished the painting begins to look. This is what Hawthorne indicated in his book, when he wrote that painting is "the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another-the fundamental thing."

Such nuances are actually the features of the subject that first enticed us. They may be the main focal point or the reason that we desired to paint it. Because it is very important to keep the integrity of the starting notes, these colors must be added cautiously. Thus, I build a painting stroke by stroke or color note by color note, deciding whether they are added as layers or side by side.

The greatest gift we are given as artists is the ability to see the infinite variety of color in nature. Impressionism is not a way to paint but a way to see. It is not a painting method but a method for translating what we see into paint.

For many of us, The Cape Cod School of Art represents our artistic ideal. Provincetowns endless beauty nurtures those of us who paint here with the true Impressionist spirit. Maintaining the link between the birth of Impressionism in France, the development of an American style, and the contemporary practice of plein air painting throughout the United States, the school remains vital to this day.


Lois Griffel ˇ 520-207-4055 ˇ Email Lois