The Complexity of Color

Image of color conbination used in the painting by Robert Henri discussed in post
Image of color chord used in the painting by Robert Henri discussed in post

I recently attended an exhibition at the New Britain Museum of  American Art in Ct. The show was called The Eight and American Modernism. There were several paintings by Robert Henri from the Milwaukee Museum of Art that I have only seen in reproductions. How refreshing to view them up close. There was one painting from a private collector that I had never seen before but had read some of Henri’s color notes regarding it in his archive. This painting, The Dancer of Delhi (Betalo Rubino), was truly magnificent. It contained in a summary form all that Henri was about and much of what he strived for.

In this piece Henri uses the model as a vehicle to explore  the complex color relationships in a chord with multiple intensities for each color in the triad. Dancer of Delhi was built on the chord of R-YG-BP with the subordinate triad as RO bi, GB bi, PR c. Each color appears in several intensities- the R approaches a pure state in the lips and adornments and appears in a lower intensity in the large drape on which the model is reclining; it is present in the flesh, neutralized by white and by the YG. The flesh tone was achieved through the main chord of primarily the YG and the BP with touches of the R in the warmer passages; the shadow area containing RO bi with warm accents of PR c and the cast shadows overlaid with the BP. The BP and the GB bi appear in different intensities throughout- combined in the foreground and side by side in the background and neutralized with white in the top of the model. And touches of pure color appear in the jewelry and beads (very like Frans Hals). It was amazing to see so much color in a piece yet still appear very realistic- realism with the inner intensity of the artist very much present.

What I found most striking about the piece other than its marvelous and sensuous color is the amazing simplicity inherent in it. The figure is simply painted and the flesh tones varying only in temperature to achieve form- the value (in regards to black and white) having very little variation. Color temperature being the primary means to achieve the modeling. This is one of Henri’s insights-” The effect of brilliancy is to be obtained principally from the oppositions of cool colors with warm colors, and the opposition of grave colors with bright colors… Form can be modeled in black and white, but there are infinitely greater possibilities in modeling through the warmth and coolness of color.” ( Henri, The Art Spirit, p.57 and p.62)

(If you end up viewing the painting on-line or in the catalogue reproduction, it is very dark and too warm with too much contrast- although it is imperfect it will at least give one an idea of the painting.)

The Power of The Neutral

neutralMuch has been written about color through the centuries and especially in the twentieth century there seems to be a particular interest in color and color relationships. We seem to be searching for something to signify on a symbolic level what our work is about and what we find most interesting.  In the past, painting did not primarily rely on color as a language in itself, although one must say, their color had its own harmony and was beautiful.  These paintings were created with a very limited selection of colors that achieved their luminosity through the juxtaposition of neutrals and pure color.  By neutral, I mean a color composed by combining the compliments – i.e. red and green; blue and orange or violet and yellow. This neutral, which approached a grey or brown provided  a color of transition between passages from light to shadow.

In painting, this area of transition between the light and the shadow, especially in the flesh, is the most illusive. It is always a color that is mysterious and indefinite. If it is too colorful or too dull, the form will not turn. It needs to be precisely what it should be. And the artist needs to find what that is.

The old masters used the neutral in such indescribable passages- the neutral taking on the compliment of the color it is in sympathy with. This creates a transference of color and intensity. What is by itself a grey or brown, becomes a subdued green next to a red. Rubens has a wonderful blue in the area of transition between the half tones and the shadow edge. It appears in all of his figures.  It is less blue than you would think.  It is a cool neutral.

Robert Henri gives the neutral a significant place within his palettes of triads. The neutral becomes the unifying element. But his neutral comes not from the direct compliments but from the combining of the triadic primaries in the palette. If my triad is RO,Y,B, my neutral would be achieved by combining these three. Because it is not a perfect selection of primaries, the neutral takes on its own particular aspect specific to this palette. It becomes that subtle color that binds the image together. Henri believed that the combining of near compliments produced a more powerful effect than direct compliments. I have found this to be very effective. The neutral floats and shifts seamlessly between the colors of the triad.  This simplicity allows one to find the necessary color vibration more easily.  The effect binds the image together adding unity and harmony to the whole.