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Color Temperature and Henry Hensche

In my class; "Classical Training for Artists" we are studying color theory and the work of "Every form change is a color change..." Cezanne

Henry Hensche and his students in deciphering color temperature. As I grow older and build my skills, I have learned to greatly treasure other artists, especially those who are "painter's painter" because we understand their contribution at a deeper level than a non-artist would.

I never had the opportunity to work with Hensche, and there are quite a few well-known artists who did, and now offer classes using his method. I write this out of respect, not as an expert, but more of an admirer. Anyone interested in classes in Hensche's method should seek out Camille Przewodyk or other artists specifically trained to teach this. This is a painting by Camille Przewodyk done as a Hensche execise:

In my opinion Hensche picked up where Sargent left off-using color temperature to describe form. Hensche was taught by Charles Hawthorne, and taught painting classes at the Cape Cod School in the late 1980's. He was famous for torturing students with years of painting colored block still lifes before they could graduate to backlit figures on the beach often called "mudheads."

What he was teaching was how light affects color and form. The blocks were very simple forms that allowed for "planar values" which means whole sides of the block were in shadow and light making it easier to see subtle nuances of cool color in the shadows, and warm color in the light.

Hensche focused more on the color temperature shift from shadow to light than the shadow gradations from dark to light. In this example, look at the big red block. In the shadow side, the top left edge is red-violet graduating to red-orange on the bottom edge. While in the light side, the top right corner is almost white, graduating to light orange.

While this may sound simplistic to someone who paints frequently, if you are just learning to see the way an artist sees, it can take a few tries before it becomes obvious to you.

Looking at this small part of the still life, notice that the rounded form of the cylinder is shown in the way the shadow on the left warms up toward the light on the right. You'll see it transitions from blue-violet to orange to warm white. The cast shadow from the green top also has the same warm colors in it.

Now painting this is another story altogether. Hensche would have his students work with putty knives on Upson board (same type of construction material that the Florida Highwaymen used for their iconic paintings) This means they had to paint in large abstract blocks with almost no detail.

This is student Jana Bouc's painting of the still life above that she set up and photographed.

Just for the record, probably NO ONE in the class wanted to paint blocks, but paint blocks they did for several years until newbie artists were as proficient and well-versed in color temperature as many old masters.

One of the benefits of working with an artist as a mentor, is that they will often assign you these mind-numbing tasks which seem pointless at the time, but are actually the best possible way to learn how to paint. As a professional art teacher, I can tell you that there would be a mutiny if I tried to get my students to spend years doing this. However, you can get a good idea of it just by trying it once and applying what you learn to future paintings.

Taking the idea of planar values and color temperature transitions to describe form one step further and applying it to portraiture, Hensche would have his students outside in bright sunlight painting faces. Students often called these portraits "mudheads" because they often made muddied color trying to get the right color temperature.

Here's one of Hensche's studies of a model on the beach. Notice the color temperature shifts. Hensche's work gave me a greater appreciation of Sorolla and his beach figures as well. More on that next week.

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1 Comment

Sure am glad you don’t make us paint blocks over and over again 😜 That technique seems very complicated for a newbie like me! I’m still trying to figure out the values. However, I know that practice is a must…I’ll just have to continue taking more courses with my you…my awesome teacher! 🤩

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