A Theory of Triads

dsc04354One of the extraordinary things about the color theory of Robert Henri is its simplicity. He believed much could be said with very little. But that limited sense does not  mean meager by any regard. “Employ such colors as produce immensity in a small space. Do not be interested in light for light’s sake or in color for color’s sake, but in each as a medium for expression.”(Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p.58) In most cases, Henri used a simple triad of color based on the spectrum band- the spectrum band referring to the order of light as it appears to the eye- it can be seen in a rainbow or a prism where the light is clearly divided in bands of color, i.e. PR- R-RO-O-OY-Y-YG-G-GB-B-BP-P. Once this spectrum palette is developed, one can then select the colors necessary for one’s composition, being clear to only use what is necessary. With much use, one discovers how little color is necessary to produce the effect of brilliance in a painting. In most cases, three colors seems enough and if another accent is needed it is fairly easy to draw down another color  from the original spectrum palette.

As I said, much can be expressed with very little. As an instructor, I find that my students are hampered by the use of too many colors. They have taken many classes and have adopted a new color with every new instructor. When I was a student, I found this to be the case, not knowing the origin or base on which to make color decisions. It was liberating to find Henri and to start at the beginning, where every student should commence the study of color.

Why a triad? Why three colors only? Why should one limit oneself to what is possible? What makes a triad of color successful is it allows each color to speak clearly and have a specific resonance with its partners.  Color is a compositional choice.  One is choosing a specific arrangement of color , not only to represent what is before one, but also to emphasize a certain feeling or emotional content. Clarity of choice allows for greater harmony, resonance and vibration.

Another dimension to this triad has to do with intensity. When one looks at the spectrum palette that we have developed here, we can see that many of the colors have similar intensities. “…there is a power in the palette which is composed of pure and grave colors that makes it wonderfully practical and which presents possibilities unique to itself.” (Ibid, p.64) Henri very often varied the intensities within this triad. He allowed one or possibly two colors to be at their full intensity. If I say my triad is R-OY-B, one could have R in its full intensity and allow the remaining colors to be of a lower intensity so that there is a hierarchy of color. This built in hierarchy allows one to orchestrate the drama in a piece. It is the grave colors built within the triad and the neutral that bring life to the painting and the more intense colors acting as their accent. In a symphony it is the orchestra that holds the composition together and the solo violin, whose notes carry us to another place, to add direction and dimension. One needs both juxtaposed against one another to bring a “living” element to the image.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

5 thoughts on “A Theory of Triads”

  1. I appreciate your essay. It is great to be able to get this information on this seminal American artist. I do think you could use more images to make your points more clear. It is difficult to recognize the dynamics of this technique without some images.

    1. It is important to remember that Henri was not attached to specific colors, i.e. ultramarine blue ect. Once he established a spectrum palette that he felt was balanced-where the primaries reacted well to their complements-he would then break it down to a triad based on a musical chord. So although, I did not give a visual example in that blog, the theory applies pretty easily. One needs to make one’s own experiments to discover the real value and the incredible harmony that is possible through this method. If you look through some of my other blogs on color mixing, I have provided some visuals. If you are happy with your own color choices, you should be able to expand the possibilities latent in the palette through Henri’s method.

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