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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Intensity: The Baffling Element

In the classroom, intensity was always the one element or concept that boggled the minds of my students. Folks got the value thing--it seemed easy enough to comprehend that a color gets lighter or darker depending upon whether it is in light or shadow. Hue was easy--regardless of whether we used the traditional triadic wheel or the Munsell wheel, students found naming the colors and organizing color schemes easy enough to deal with.

But when we hit the intensity idea, brakes were applied and tires started squealing. So how do we mortals wrap our minds around intensity?

Look at this strip of two colors.
These are the same hue, the same value, but of differing intensities. What is the hue? There's one clue. If you can look at a color and FIRST name its hue, THEN name its value, you might be able--afterwards-- to name its intensity. But how do you name an intensity?

I think that's part of the problem. Intense/neutral. These are the pairs. Neutral has no color at all--theoretically, this is. It's gray. Every single color under the sun can lose its color identity (hue) when totally neutralized by its complement. It can nearly lose its identity when mixed with gray, black or white.So, theoretically a color is most intense at its spectrum color where it has in it neither complement nor gray, black or white. With these added, though, it is either very intense, somewhat intense, somewhat neutral or almost neutral. So our language then is high intensity, middle intensity, low intensity or neutral.

Looking at a diagram of the spectrum (above) and the three colors underneath it, it's easy to see that all three hues are red-orange. The first is a bit browner, the second a bit rustier and the third closer to spectrum red-orange. So how do we know their intensity? The third is obviously closer to the spectrum.

Oranges, reds and purples get rustier or browner, yellows and yellow-oranges get more ochre, greens become olive, blues look grayer. So if you call the first color a brownish-orange, then you know it's more neutral.

Try this: let's look at Martin Figlinski's painting "Beach Path, Grayton Beach".

"Beach Path, Grayton Beach" (c) Artist Martin Figlinski

The three swatches above are sampled from Martin's painting. Take them one at a time, left to right. Name the hue, now the value, now the intensity. Use the language for naming the intensity as simply "high, middle, low" or "highish, middle, lowish". Doesn't need to get more complicated than that.

Go to the end of this post for the correct answers.

Let's do the same thing with Carol Marine's "Orange Parade"
"Orange Parade" (c) Artist Carol Marine
After we learn to name the intensity, we should be able to become conscious of it when we see it. So rather than call an old unpainted barn gray, we'd call it low-intensity, mid-value bluish-violet, for example.

Seeing and recognizing the hue will go a long way towards labeling the intensity. So remember, if you see it brownish or rust, it's probably red-violet, red, red-orange or orange; if it appears to be ocher, it's most likely yellow-orange or yellow or even yellow-green; if it seems more olive, it's green, if it seems gray either has no hue or it might be blue. These are examples of what you might expect, but don't depend upon them: rather, fix your eyes on the hue first. Once you name it, the value and the intensity should be easy.

Leave me a note in the comments section and tell me how this works for you.

Figlinski samples: (1) left, blue-violet/light/low, (2)red-violet/light/low (3)red-orange/dark/low
Marine samples: (1) red-orange/middle/somewhat low, (2) orange/mid-light/somewhat high, (3)orange/high/somewhat low, (4)red-orange/low/low


Casey Klahn said...

I am in awe of your ability to break it down and present it (this or any subject) so well.

The color swatches are wonderfully done.

Dianne Mize said...

Thanks, Casey. It just comes from spending more than forty years explaining this stuff to folks. After a while you either give up or find a way to do it.

Marc R. Hanson said...

Diane you are doing such a service here. More students of painting, that's all of us, need to find you! This is hard to do, it truly appreciated.

This is an interesting and as you say, perplexing topic for many painters. I met a painter in New Orleans last year, Phil Sandusky, who is a teacher and has had several articles published in American Artist, and has a book out exhibiting his paintings about the aftermath of Katrina, who had something very enlightening to say about this very topic.

I was also taught the Munsell Color System in art school, and am glad for that. I learned that color has as it's three characteristics... Value, Hue and Intensity. Those are the three words that I've always used to describe and define color. But I'm rethinking the terminology in my own teaching and painting now.

Phil talked about the idea that 'intensity' is confusing because it denotes 'bright' or 'dark' and the variation in between, almost more than it does the strength or richness of a color.

"Those are intense lights on that car!" an exclamation that we might hear. That implies that the person feels that the lights are very bright.

Phil was a engineer/physicist before being a painter and said that in science 'intensity' talks about how light or dark something is.

Instead of intensity, he uses 'saturation' to describe this quality of color... it's richness or distance from the center of the color wheel. I sort of like this. Saturation is a good descriptive word that tells us how much of something there is. It's more to the point than intensity.

Many students assume that intensity is brightness. It's confusing.

What ever word we use to describe this third of a colors' makeup, we should not forget that ALL of our color choices are RELATIVE.

We can name them until the sheep come home. But unless we learn to 'compare' the intensity or saturation, value and hue of 'all' of the colors within the painting to each other... the labeling won't mean anything.

I really feel it's always a question of "What the relative intensity of that blue is to....(whatever)". More than just labeling the intensity of one color independent of what that color is surrounded by and being compared to.

A gray that we might label 'neutral' when placed next to a less saturated/intense gray could possibly become very saturated/intense visually.

That's just my 2 cents. It's late and I need to get to bed. Otherwise this will go on for a long time.

Thanks for the stimulation Diane.