Delacroix’s Double Triangle- some thoughts

I teach a college class on color, and in my lectures, I compare the many ways painters have visually described the color spectrum. This includes the typical color wheel, Henri’s sequential layout of the color spectrum, and Delacroix’s double triangle. My students gain the most understanding from Delacroix’s double triangle. The two triangles interlock. The first triangle displays the primaries, red, yellow, and blue. The second triangle displays the secondaries, orange, green, and violet. These triangles interlock in a way that displays the complementary pairs- the point of say, red, is directly across from its complement, green.

Alexander Dumas visited Delacroix’s studio and related how this double triangle was drawn on the wall. Delacroix meditated on this arrangement daily. So last semester, when I drew this double triangle on the chalkboard, I too had some insight as I meditated on this diagram set side-by-side to Henri’s Full Spectrum arrangement. I began to reflect on the intersections that lie within the double triangle. These intersections reveal the tertiary mixes. Below yellow at the apex lies the OY and the YG. But I found it interesting that each primary color’s scale rests on that bar just under the apex of the primary that it describes- O, OY, YG, and G. The Y appears at the apex at the highest intensity. Below this, the combination of the OY and YG [Henri’s Y Bi color] is lower in intensity. On the wings of the bar, O and G display the lowest intensity of the Y on the yellow scale [Henri’s Y Hue]. Note that the OY and YG are closer to the Y and therefore, have a greater intensity than O and G which lie further out.

If I follow the perimeter of the triangle, I arrive at the RO and the GB near the center. When combined, these colors form a neutral and follow Henri’s ideas on a color’s scale. If we examine Henri’s Intensity Palettes, he allows for the transition of a color’s scale to travel through a set of neutrals before passing into the complementary scale, in this case, violet. The RO + GB is the proper neutral for this Y scale. As the triangle descends beyond this neutral, we arrive at the violet complement through the R + B, the VR + BV , and the V itself. Note, that there is no visual scale for the secondaries. To arrive at these scales of O, G, and V, one needs to mix the B + R; the B Bi + R Bi; and the B Hue + the R Hue. This is reflected in both Delacroix’s and Henri’s versions because if we examine the V end, all combinations give you V without any reduction in the intensity. Hence, one can only arrive at the secondary color scales by mixing combinations within the primary scales.

Another thought that struck me was the idea of “near-complements”. Henri spent much time in his Late Palettes investigating the use of “near-complementary” combinations. These near-complementary mixes add a greater vitality to the paint mix versus just using the complement to reduce the intensity within a complementary pair. Mixing Y + VR creates the OY, O, RO, and R sides of the chromatic circle; and Y + BV creates the YG, G, GB, and B sides of the chromatic circle. This also reflects Walter Sargent’s idea of the Chromatic Circle as evidenced in his book, “The Enjoyment and Use of Color.” Henri’s late Irish portraits of children are painted using this idea of a chromatic circle based on near-complementary relationships. This method allows the painting to be seen through a ‘colored lens’ concentration and actualizing the power of the complements without excessive neutralization [which dulls the effectiveness of mixing the complements. I am not including laying the complements side-by-side, which itself is an activation that takes place in the mind of the viewer, and hence, has vitality].

The ideas of a color’s scale and a chromatic circle must have been in the mind of Delacroix as he reflected on this double triangle on his studio wall. I imagine him, very much like Henri, spending time mixing color combinations on his palette in an attempt to unlock a greater understanding of the power of color.

Henri’s analysis of Alizarin

Robert Henri, Mary Gallagher, 1924

Robert Henri, Mary Gallagher, 1924

One of the most difficult tasks for every artist is determining which pigments in their oil paints are permanent and can be intermixed. The science behind pigment permanency is not always clear. Much of our understanding of pigment permanency is derived from artists like Henri, who, through the centuries, have conducted their own experiments in order to develop a permanent palette in oils or watercolors and then pass this knowledge on to their students.

In the recent past, there have been chemists who have acted as authorities on pigment permanency, such as A.H. Church, “The Chemistry of Paints and Painting” (1890) and “Color: an Elementary Manual for Students (1907); Maximilian Toch, “The Chemistry and Technology of Mixed Paints” (1907), “Materials for a Permanent Painting” (1911), and “How to Paint a Permanent Picture” (1922); as well as some older names such as Jacques Blockx, and Winsor and Newton, both paint manufacturers. Ralph Mayer’s “The Artist’s Handbook” (1940) is a more contemporary analysis of artists’ paints. This type of research is crucial as the integrity of one’s work depends on the quality and permanency of the pigments. I use the Color of Art Pigment Database to determine how permanent a pigment is and whether there are any issues with mixing that pigment with others on my palette. Modern dyes, introduced in the 20th century, are often mixed into cheaper artists’ paint, affecting the lightfastness and the overall permanency of the paint.

Henri spent much time seeking a permanent palette that could be used with or without Alizarin Crimson. This pigment is very popular today as it was in Henri’s time. Although Permanent Alizarin was recently developed, this pigment is unlike the original Alizarin Crimson. And once you have used the original, replacing it with the pinker Permanent Alizarin is hard.

Henri used Alizarin Crimson briefly in his palettes focused on intensity in the early 1920s. When I experimented with these intensity palettes, I got addicted to Alizarin Crimson all over again and had to ween myself from its use. Note Alizarin tends to darken in contact with many pigments, such as Aureolin Yellow. I have seen artists work produced in the ’70s-’80s already darkened by the Alizarin coming in contact with pigments that it is incompatible with. I would urge all artists using this pigment to ensure their palette is archival by conducting the proper research. Henri later abandons using Alizarin for other pigments that are known to be permanent and can easily be intermixed.

Henri spent two-plus years researching and experimenting with pigment permanency to produce a document for members of The League of American Artists. George Bellows and H.G. Maratta also participated in generating this book for the League, Bellows as an editor and Maratta as an advisor. It was never published, as the League disbanded shortly after its completion.

Robert Henri Archive, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT

Robert Henri, Artists Pigment Notebook, Box 25, f. 580, p. 5. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. [Not to be reproduced for commercial purposes].

I want to share Henri’s permanent palettes that he developed through this research and experimentation with my readers. Henri ends the document for the League by providing two permanent palettes- a permanent palette safe with Alizarin and a permanent palette that does not use Alizarin. You may or may not be someone who uses Alizarin; either way, these palettes describe a series of pigments that are fully compatible.

The palette which may be used safely in conjunction with Madders and Alizarin:

  • Madders, such as Rose Madder
  • Alizarin, such as Alizarin Crimson
  • Mars Violet
  • Indian Red
  • Vermilion
  • Light Red
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Cadmium
  • Viridian
  • Davy Grey
  • Ultramarine blues
  • Paynes Gray
  • Black
  • Zinc White

The palette which excludes Madders and Alizarin:

  • Indian Red
  • Venetian Red
  • Vermilion- cannot be used with lead white
  • Mars Violet
  • Mars Red
  • Light Red
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Mars Orange
  • Burnt Umber
  • Cadmium
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Raw Sienna
  • Mars Yellow
  • Viridian
  • Davey Grey
  • Raw Umber
  • Mars Brown
  • Ultramarine Blues
  • Paynes Gray
  • Lamp Black
  • Ivory Black
  • Zinc white
  • Lead White- Henri notes there might be an issue with ultramarine and lead white

These palettes contain a more extensive array of colors than one would need. Henri indicates within his document that he would develop limited palettes that would be more practical for painting. From the second palette, Henri selects three possible versions:

Zinc W.- Vermilion- Cadmium- Ultramarine

Zinc W.- Vermilion- Cadmium- Viridian-Ultramarine

Lead W.- Indian R./or Mars V.-Venetian R./ or Bt. Sienna- Cadmium/ or Yellow Ochre- Viridian/ or Davey Grey- Black

Henri provides these limited palettes as suggestions for working palettes. Because each palette is permanent, the artist may choose any combination of the selected pigments to build his working palette. One is not obligated to choose those pigments that Henri has selected.

I hope Henri’s experimentation can provide some insight into the pigments you have already chosen to work with on your palette, or if there is a problem of permanency on your palette, you might be able to remedy the issue. Any questions about these palettes? Use the contact page to reach out.