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I did a couple of workshops a few years back with Californian artist, Susan Sarback, ( Susan studied for many years with Provincetown-based artist Henry Hensche and was one of the people originally involved in the Hensche Foundation (, a website dedicated to his legacy and teaching approaches.


In many ways Hensche is still a controversial figure, arousing equal extremes of passion in both his students and detractors. By all accounts he was a much better painter than teacher, who put his students through possibly unnecessary gruelling, repetitive exercises, which, in turn, perhaps coloured the judgement of some of them because of the sheer time invested over the years.


Without getting into it too much, Hensche's core painting philosophy involved a new way of seeing rather than a painting methodology. This required his students to "forget" everything they had learnt in art college and begin to trust their own vision. The resulting paintings, which may appear a little "garish" in his early years are undoubtedly, to my eyes anyway, imbued with a light quality reminiscent of the work of Claude Monet in the 1880's and early 90's. I do however feel than many of them, other than the very latest works, lack subtlety in both colour variation and the treatment of edges. 


Hensche would be labled today as a colourist, but he never labelled himself as anything other than someone responding honestly to what he saw within the limit of his painting skills. When it comes to colourist vs tonalist, I like to think of them as different painting "languages", neither one being right or wrong. But then again some languages sound more poetic than others, so perhaps depending on the subject matter one or other approaches is most appropriate!


Have a look at the Hensche Foundation site (there are some really good large images there - Sarback's images are very small and don't really do her justice) and let me know what you think.


If anyone else has some interesting links on colourist/tonalist approaches to plein air painting, please share them here.

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John Ebersberger is a contemporary painter, whose work is heavly influenced by Hensche. Here is a link to his website Worth visiting just to see his stunning portrait of the little girl on the step, but it is mostly in his outdoor still lifes that the Hensche influence is most evident.
Hi Michael--I share your fascination with the Henry Henshe way of approaching color and painting. There is an interesting wall discussion on the Henry Henshe face book page that I reformatted into a pdf document so it would be easier to read. There is probably more to the discussion now--I just captured it up to a certain point in 2009. I'm attaching the file--would like to hear your comments on it.
I'm delighted you picked up on this discussion item, Kathryn, and thanks so much for going to the trouble of reproducing all that discourse from the Facebook page. I've looked in there quite a few times and find it very interesting, not least because I feel I know a lot of the participants, even though I've never met any of them (have corresponded with many of them through e-mail though). I find that there is a level of zeal, bordering on evangelism among many of Hensche's students, to the extent that they are totally dismissive of other painting styles. I, for one, have difficulty in taking anyone seriously, who dismisses Richard Schmid as some sort of inferior "tonalist" who craves appeal from the masses.

I've just read all 14 pages (hopefully more do so!) and the one thing that stands out for me, because I've heard it from many former Hensche students, is that it should be possible to suggest the "light key" (a Hensche term which really just means the prevailing light conditions) by a reasonably faithful representation of the relative average colour (hue/value/chroma) of each of the main masses (say about 6-7) - wouldn't that be an interesting challenge here! BTW when some such as Ken Massey use the terminology "colour modelling in the light key", he is simply saying that if you trust your vision and paint the colours you actually see rather than tonal variations of local colour, the result will be a three dimensional image which will suggest the prevailing light conditions.

Just a final personal thought. I had a sort of painting revelation about two years ago, when it dawned on me that I couldn't actually paint what I saw. The human eye deciphers form through a combination of both tonal and colour modelling, with the brain processing hundreds of images instantly, as the eye scans the scene constantly changing aperture and focus. The artist cannot possibly represent that in one single image, but it is possible to suggest elements of it. Once I realised that, it become clear that all painting styles are merely different "languages", none of which is strictly right or wrong. In fact, they are all "wrong" if a true reproduction of "visual reality" is the artist's painting goal.

I think the problem comes down to the missing "dimension". We are all taught that colours are made up of three elements, hue, chroma and value. The fourth dimension is edges which can help to suggest focus. I believe the fifth is relative light intensity, by which I mean the relative difference in the amount of light reflected by different surfaces in nature. We cannot replicate this, because we are have no control over the relative reflectivity of our painting pigments. I'm fairly sure that this phenomenon is what really stimulates our visual senses when painting outdoors and the various painting approaches all try in some way to recreate it. I think that the French Impressionists, particularly Monet, and latterly Hawthorne and Hensche invented a language which captures this more effectively than a purely tonal rendering. I don't know why it is so, but to my eyes at least if capturing light is your goal, it appears to work.

Thanks again for chipping in. I hope a few more follow suit. BTW if anyone thinks that Hensche's ideas are rubbish, that is a perfectly valid opinion as far as I'm concerned and I won't be in the least offended.
I want to re-read that discussion and then I'll get back on that. I was introduced to Henshe years ago when I was studying along side Camile Prezwodek in some Jove Wang classes. But I wasn't really attracted to it at the time. Then one of my friends kept telling me I should do block studies, so I had a goal last summer of 50 block studies out on my deck. Half way through, I had no idea about why I was doing it so I started researching Henshe to try to really understand the purpose of the block studies and came across that discussion. I also got Lois Griffel's book and painted a few studies step-by-step following her thought process. It was so much of a mind switch ah-ha thing that even though I'm still not attracted to some of the results of that school, it got into my thinking and it actually made sense. So I'm trying to work out what that means along with my studies from Ovanes Berberian, who of course studied with Sergei Bongart--the other great colorist of the century. What I got from him was the idea of temperature contrast and understanding color through comparing like colors to each other--that color is relative--sort of like what you were saying. I think you are right that every great artist has his/her own language and it is as much poetic as it is rendering reality.
I've had a lot of communication with Ken Massey in particular and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity. He is quite put out by the fact that there are some former Hensche students whose painting methods have deviated quite some distance from Hensche's ideas, but they are still either implicitly or explicitly portraying them as the "Hensche method". Among the worst offenders, he cites Lois Griffel and also to some extent Susan Sarback. I can really only comment definitively on Sarback because I have her books and have done a couple of workshops with her. I have though browsed through Griffel's book too and it does seem to me that she is teaching something which differs quite considerably from Hensche. Sarback, on the other hand, seems to me to have merely put a "construct" around Hensche's approach which makes it more teachable.

As someone with no formal art education, I have no grounding in the tonal approach and/or the importance of values. Because of that, perhaps, the simplicity of Hensche's ideas appeals to me, which all boils down to just trusting your vision. So if the shadow side of an orange in sunlight looks green, paint it that way, no matter what colour theory says.
It was interesting to me that Lois' name is not listed on the HH Facebook student list--I wondered if there was some philosophical divergence. There is depth to the discussion, but in many ways it is cryptic to me. The thing that stood out to me was the description of the difference between a value approach and a color approach. That made a lot of sense. I also remembered this statement about current HH teachers from reading it before: "In many cases these personal styles are a reflection of what he taught as beginning lessons of over coloring and exaggeration of color to get the impact of light on the eye and break peoples habits of looking at values instead of colors and these are important lessons and it is a beautiful stage of development but is not the end but is the beginning of color study.

If Ken Massey believes Lois went in her own direction away from what HH taught, I'm really curious if he said more specifically what he meant by that. I don't pretend to know anything about what HH taught--but I find that the approach speaks to me and the description in Lois' book was at least a big clue about what it all meant.
Here is a good link, Kathryn, in which Ken Massey tries to explain the issues he has with Sarback and Griffel:-

He does tend to go on a bit, partly perhaps in an attempt to display his knowledge, but if you ignore the repeated jargon, there is a consistency in what he says. His chief criticisms of Sarback boil down to two things. He claims she:-

- gets students to block in the main masses in pure hues plus white, and

- proposes that sunlit and shadow masses be painted in warm and cool colours respectively.

Apparently, Hensche never taught anything like this, but rather encouraged students to develop and trust their own vision, so that they could block in the main masses in flat areas of colour which were mixtures of several colours including "earth" colours, i.e. not pure hue plus white.

That does seem clear enough. The only problem though is that he misinterprets what Sarback teaches. It is certainly true that Sarback suggests that all masses be started in pure hues plus white and warm/cool for suunlight/shadow respectively. The key word here is "started" because Sarback suggests that no more than 5-10 minutes be devoted to what she describes as "Stage 1", the main purpose of which is to get the values right. In "Stage 2", she asks students to refine their initial block-in by adding whatever color mixtures are necessary so that the main masses read correct relative to one another, this establishing the "light key".

I've actually corresponded with her quite a bit about Massey's criticisms. Her explanation for what she teaches is very simple. The only difference is that she has added another stage (Stage 1) to make it easier for students to learn. Her "Stage 2" is identical to Hensche's initial block-in of the main masses. Therefore, Massey's criticisms do not stand up in that respect. However, the warm/cool thing is a divergence from Hensche's teaching, and it is something which is easily seen to be wrong, when observing light and shadow in nature. To my eyes anyway, the nearest vertical shadow areas are nearly always dark and warm rather than cool. And it is also true of course that cast shadows from a North light source are usually warm.

From what I can remember, Griffel also advocates a very structured approach, involving the use of complimentary colours. Massey feels even more strongly that she is misrepresenting what Hensche taught. But again, perhaps he is misrepresenting her to some degree (if you can condense what Griffel advocates in a few simple sentences, I would be in a better position to comment).

A lot of what is going on here may just be plain old jealousy. As in all walks of life, some do better than others. Hensche's students enjoy varying degrees of commercial success, both as artists and teachers, and the less successful may resent the success of others to some extent. But having said that, there is a sincerity about Massey that appeals to me. I do feel his heart is in the right place about all of this, and there is no doubt that Hensche influenced him to the point of obsession and he has a deep respect and love for the man.

My advice to you, Kathryn, and anyone else who may be following this thread is to be aware that Hensche's big idea was that every plane change represents a hue shift as well as a value/chroma shift. After that he just ground his students down by repeated exercises until such time as they were able to represent this almost automatically on the canvas. So be wary of "painting systems" purporting to be based on Hensche's teaching, which are overly-formulaic and prescriptive. There are no short-cuts. It comes down to developing your vision through putting in the long hours and then having the confidence and skill to reproduce that on the canvas.

Kathryn Townsend said:
It was interesting to me that Lois' name is not listed on the HH Facebook student list--I wondered if there was some philosophical divergence. There is depth to the discussion, but in many ways it is cryptic to me. The thing that stood out to me was the description of the difference between a value approach and a color approach. That made a lot of sense. I also remembered this statement about current HH teachers from reading it before: "In many cases these personal styles are a reflection of what he taught as beginning lessons of over coloring and exaggeration of color to get the impact of light on the eye and break peoples habits of looking at values instead of colors and these are important lessons and it is a beautiful stage of development but is not the end but is the beginning of color study.

If Ken Massey believes Lois went in her own direction away from what HH taught, I'm really curious if he said more specifically what he meant by that. I don't pretend to know anything about what HH taught--but I find that the approach speaks to me and the description in Lois' book was at least a big clue about what it all meant.
Hi Michael--thanks for the link to wetcanvas. This quote stood out for me:

"Every form change is a color change, and if you cannot see the shape of the color, you are not seeing the color." This guideline goes to the necessity to color model plane changes in flat shapes of color in order to reach the level of visual growth that is possible in studies. Color that is left unshaped is not seen in its true harmonic context, and this leads to a very unnatural color quality in many painters work."

The main things I got from Griffel are:
1. For light areas, to start, block in the color of the light (and shadow) which is not necessarily the local color. Then in subsequent statements modify the color to more nearly match what you see (this was from an example of a block study). This matched what I had seen (and heard) that Camille does--for example, start a sky with a pink color if that is the color of the light, rather than the obvious blue. What I found in actuality, is that by doing this type of thing, you can create much more luminous color--especially in outdoor painting where you can paint into the canvas directly with other color within the same value range rather than with pre-mixed color. (This is just a simplistic example of what I understood).
2. Don't use the same initial color for all objects--have the initial color different on each object. This corresponded to stuff I learned years ago from a Russian teacher in figure painting who forbade using the same color to express the light on different parts of the body--e.g. the light plane closest to the viewer was a different color than the light plane furthest away, etc. Lack of color shifts is one of the flaws I see in many contemporary paintings and something I am always trying to think about.

3. This was combined with what I was reading on the HH Facebook discussion--the idea of seeing color first (which is what I've always done instinctively) rather than value. But that has also meant for me that I have to be deliberate about value sometimes. I like some of Lois' paintings, but some of them seem overly layered and rather than harmonize, the colors clash in an unpleasant way to my eyes (and some of Sarbacks the same). It would appear from just looking at her paintings that Lois relies more on layering of color to achieve the light effects (more like what Monet did) than the modeling of color as Massey describes HH taught. That's just my uneducated guess. And Camille seems to use that approach somewhat with the palette knife--starting with a red-ish color, for example, for a group of trees and then layering in a yellow green or green green over that. Though she is really good at atmospheric shifts, sometimes the foreground colors seem formulaic and not harmonious to the whole painting. There is always an element of artist choice--the artists own sense of design and harmony.

Ovanes (not a HH student) also taught starting with flat shapes of color--but I believe for him the first statement is not just color keys but the necessity to key the value structure at the same time--to set the value (notan) design of the painting (not the values of individual objects). This I also got from Jove Wang. But again, I think value is one of my weaknesses so I have to pay attention to it. I found the facebook discussion about tonal vs color approaches really interesting and I am definitely more in the mind set of those who approach painting as a visual learning experience and training than the need to create pictures about things.
That quote resonates with me too, Kathryn, because it really differentiates between brushwork which is deliberate (in the sense that the individual brushstrokes help to model form) and that which is merely "loose". I saw it in your work when you first posted here and it is something that had instant appeal for me.

Thanks for the insight into Lois Griffel's approach. It seems to me that there is very little between her ideas, those of Sarback and Hensche's. Perhaps, it ultimately comes down to the skill of the individual artist, and not the method, whether paintings done in this way have appeal or not. I've seen a lot of Sarback's work IRL and up close, and strangely enough her studio works are vastly superior to her plein airs IMHO. From what I've seen of Griffel's work, albeit reproductions in books and on the internet, I'm not terribly impressed. But there is no doubt in my mind that Hawthorne and Hensche were on to something, and perhaps neither fully understood what it was (Hensche realised that he had fallen short of his own painting goals and according to Sarback in his later years frequently urged students to take his ideas to "the next level").

Hopefully, a few more of our members contribute to this discussion. But if not, I know that quite a few have read it anyway.
What I cherish about Lois' book (and I would buy it again in a minute), is that she has two chapters where she describes painting a block study in sunlight and one in overcast conditions. She completely details her thought process--why she chooses one specific color over another, which of two reds is warmer and which colder, how she starts with the light areas and then goes to the shadow areas, the lst, 2nd and final statements. Teachers can tell you things, but if you don't understand the thinking behind it, sometimes its more of a wall than a door--its a shot in the dark. So whether or not she teaches exactly as HH would have, she tells you exactly how she does it and how she thinks about it each step of the way--that was for me definitely worth the price of the book. If you actually try it, you discover things for yourself.

I think I had done about 40 block studies when I decided to do one following her chapter in the book on the sunny day block study last fall. This is it:

This has all the appearance of someone who studied with Hensche, Kathryn (knife work, I presume). It's clear to me that you really get what this is about. The block study clearly reads mid-day sunlight. Wouldn't it be a fun exercise if a few of us tried to do this at different times of day and in different atmospheric conditions! I'll work on the idea with a few of my fellow painters.

Susan Sarback didn't do any block studies at her workshops. The first one I did was called a "colour intensive" and involved fairly simple indoor still-lifes under halogen lighting, which is very close to the colour of mid-day sunlight. From a teaching point of view, I understand why she did this - no worries about weather or cast shadows moving - so the emphasis was on getting it right as opposed to speed. When I came home, I did several small still life studies, mostly with fruit and some simple tableware. If I can find any of them, I'll post them here - be warned though, they're pretty poor! About a year later I did a couple of larger still lifes under halogen lamps, done over several hours, but still adhering rigidly to Sarback's approach and using only a knife. Here is one of these from my website (about 4-5 years ago). I'm still amazed by the sense of bright mid-day sunlight achieved with a relatively narrow value range, mid to high only, which is exactly what you have done in your block study. But it did teach me a valuable lesson about human vision. (NB This is a finished painting 16" x 20" in size - believe me my smaller studies were total rubbish, unlike what you've shown here in your block study! So I'm not trying to "steal your thunder"!)
Michael--beautiful painting! And thanks for the tip on the halogen lighting--so far this spring we have had very few sunny days here and the ones we've had have been cold and windy.

Thanks for your comments on my little block study--I don't use palette knife, just a big bristle brush. The composition and the perspective of the blocks are kind of funky, but it was a breakthrough painting for me because I got some stuff about starting with painting the light.

Great idea about the challenge! I think I'm in still in that stage they called "not being able to see more than the difference between sunny day and overcast day" so it would definitely be a challenge to try to paint different times during the day.

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