Robert Henri’s Interest in the Semi-neutrals

When one thinks about the paintings of Robert Henri, one thinks of the vibrancy of his color palette. But Henri’s method was multi-layered. What Henri sought in his images was a balance between high-intensity colors and what he called “grave” colors. Henri felt that the grave colors actually gave the feeling of mystery and “aliveness” to the painting, not the more intense colors which appear relatively flat in their brightness. Henri consistently experimented with these semi-neutrals in the form of Bi colors and Hues. These semi-neutrals act as a foil to the more intense colors revealing their inherent richness through juxtaposition.

When I paint from life, which is my typical way of working, I sometimes wish to find a specific semi-neutral color that is not made by combining a pair of complements. These semi-neutrals can be arranged to mirror the full-intensity colors along the spectrum. What I am looking for, in this case, is a semi-neutral, what Henri called the Bi color, that would fall within the area of a tertiary. The tertiaries along the spectrum are OY-YG-GB-BV-VR-RO. So, I am looking for a tertiary color that is semi-neutralized.

Painting from life, the artist uses many combinations of tertiary mixes. What I have found is that tertiaries that are semi-neutralized are inevitable in my paintings. But instead of feeling my way to these neutralized tertiaries, I have mapped out my understanding of these combinations so I can call them up when I need them without a flurry of indecision or hesitation. Since I am not mixing the high-intensity color first and then lowering its intensity with a neutral or complement, I need to know what combinations of colors along the 12 intervals of the full spectrum will immediately give me my semi-neutralized tertiary.

Arthur Pope, who studied with Denman Ross at Harvard University, studied semi-neutrals and their spectrum relationship. Pope arranges a series of spectrum colors placed against their complement. Each color follows its place along the full spectrum. In this example, Pope begins with V set against its complement, Y . When mixed, V and Y form a neutral(N). Pope then indicates an alternative to this type of mixing by shifting to the near-complement to mix a semi-neutral (center column in small script). This type of diagonal mixing to produce a semi-neutral was Denman Ross’ basic mixing method for most of his set-palettes.

Mixing the near-complement, in this case, is mixing 2 colors at an interval of the 5th. An example: VR is mixed with Y to create a RO semi-neutral color. Mixing the complements to create a total neutral is mixing at an interval of the 6th. Observe how the semi-neutral mixes follow the spectrum by looking at the center column (in small script). Each mixture of a near-complement produces a semi-neutral (primary, secondary or tertiary mix). In the left arrangement, the semi-neutrals descend from a G-YG-Y-OY-O-RO to black. In the right arrangement, the semi-neutrals descend from a R-VR-V-BV-B-GB to black. This is Pope’s Type B Palette (with warm colors at full intensity). The 2 columns, right, and left, display the mix for one near-complement and then the other, available for each color. An example: OY + B (left); OY + V (right). Both B and V are near-complements to OY.

Both Robert Henri and H.G. Maratta understood this principle. Henri applied it in some of his Late Palettes based on the chromatic circle B-O which follows Pope’s diagonal mixing. One thing unique to Maratta, though, was his understanding of intervals between colors. Ross often used regular intervals for each of his numbered palettes (especially before meeting with H.G. Maratta). But Maratta often chose unequal intervals such as his Chord palette designs based on the interval combinations of 3-4-5. It is this 4th interval that I wish to examine here.

An interval of the 4th will produce a series of semi-neutrals if I begin with a tertiary as my root note. If I mix two tertiaries at 4 intervals apart, I will mix a semi-neutral. Here is a chart I have designed to organize my thoughts about mixing the semi-neutrals. Note that the tertiaries appear in a sequence that mirrors their progression along the spectrum. I have repeated the tertiaries in 3 columns to cover all combinations. You will see that each triad is repeated in a different order, but I have kept both as a way to understand the color movement along the spectrum.

I have also grouped them into three’s horizontally. If I mix each horizontal triad of tertiaries, I can produce a complete neutral. An example: The top line is made up of VR-OY-GB. If I examine these colors, I have the three primaries and the three secondaries contained within these colors. This means that when all three colors are mixed, I will produce a complete neutral. This is not a chord but a different kind of color arrangement.

Note also that to create these semi-neutral tertiaries mixes, I am mixing at the 4th interval. If I look at each line in this chart, I find that the semi-neutral obtained from the mixed combinations is the missing tertiary between the two tertiary notes. An Example: VR + OY= RO semi-neutral. The RO naturally appears between the VR tertiary and the OY tertiary. The color skipped is the semi-neutral produced by mixing the VR and the OY. This makes this chart easy to remember.

Robert Henri understood that semi-neutrals could be produced using multiple color combinations. Even within the Chord palettes, sometimes Henri would get a semi-neutral of a RO Bi one way and on the next painting produce a RO Bi with a different set of mixes. A semi-neutral tertiary occurs in some of the chords if the 4th interval begins on a tertiary color. If it begins on a secondary, you will produce one of the Hues. For example, if I take O as my root note and count 4 intervals, I will come to G. O + G = Y Hue.

This chart is my invention, but Henri and Maratta understood its structure. I use this chart, especially when landscape painting, to help me identify which tertiary combinations will give me the semi-neutral that I observe in front of me. These color combinations are optically more interesting than a semi-neutral created from a pair of complements, especially if you allow the tertiaries to be only partially mixed.

On October 16, 2021, I presented at the Robert Henri Museum in Cozad, Nebraska. The conference included the Robert Henri family presenting on managing Henri’s legacy and estate and Valerie Ann Leeds, the foremost art historian on Robert Henri, who presented on Henri’s public persona and the artistic choices that led to his fame. I invite you to watch a video of my presentation The Color Investigations of Robert Henri.

Color Progression through Semi-Neutrals


Denman Ross, Palette 1H 1C, The Painter’s Palette, p. 24.

As part of my studies into the palettes of Denman Ross, I have been reading and experimenting with Arthur Pope’s palettes as presented in his The Painter’s Terms, Vol. 1, 1929. In this work, Pope reviews the concepts Ross had based his palettes on as well as re-presenting Ross’ Palette 1H and 1C (this can be found in The Painter’s Palette by Ross, p. 24). I found Pope’s version, Type B Palette, very enlightening. Pope lays out the color spectrum following the 7 value structure between the extremes of white at the top and black at the bottom (Ross, see above). The colors of the spectrum are mixed so that their value follows this structure. So some colors are lightened or darkened to a set value between HLt and LD, depending on their placement within this value structure.

These palettes contain 2 opposing movements-a movement up to Y at HLt set against a movement down to Y at LD. Each column is aligned with its complement. There is both a warm version and a cool version of the Type B Palette (hence why Ross referred to his as 1H and 1C). The warm version, Fig. 54 and 55 (Pope), contains the colors Y, OY, O, RO, R, VR, V at their, “… normal value levels in the tone solid, and may be obtained at their highest intensities.” (Pope, p. 132) The cool version presents the Y, YG, G, GB, B, BV, V at their normal value level and therefore, allow them to appear at their highest level of intensity in this cool version (Pope, Fig.56, p. 132, not shown).

Arthur Pope, Type B Palette, warm version. The Painter’s Terms, p.131.

I would like to examine the Type B Palette, warm version (Diagram above). Pope sets it out very much like Ross had, except he identifies the nomenclature of the mixes (the mixes I am referring to are those that run down the middle of each column). And by naming them, clarifies how they look and how they fall along the color spectrum as near-neutrals. These mixes are created by mixing colors on a diagonal (as Ross had recommended). If we examine Fig. 55, Pope lays out the possible mixes, along the diagonals as well as between the direct neutrals, in the Type B Palette in two columns on either side of the circle diagrams. By laying it out in this fashion, we can examine the movement along the color spectrum of these near-neutrals. On the left column in the center, in smaller print, we can see a descending movement from G, YG, Y, OY, O, RO. And on the right in the center column a descending movement from R, VR, V, BV, B, GB. The direct neutrals appear between these mixes, such as R and G.

I have re-created these two diagrams, with the G-RO descending movement first and the R-GB descending movement second.

Judith Reeve, Type B Palette warm version, first set of mixes.

Judith Reeve, Type B warm version, second set of mixes.

These two descending movements indicate near-neutrals that mimic the color spectrum in its recession, 6 colors in each column separated by the direct neutral mixes. This is very similar to H.G. Maratta’s Bi colors which are mixes that follow the color spectrum and are created from near-neutrals. Near-neutrals maintain an integrity of color identification that is not possible in direct neutrals. When a near-neutral is mixed the color obtained shifts that mixture from the center of the color wheel (where neutrals are situated) toward a specific color area. Pope explores this phenomena in the circle diagrams in Fig. 55. If we look at the RO-GB diagram, we can see that a direct line drawn between these complements creates a neutral that falls directly in the center of the circle. If, instead, the RO is mixed with G, the line drawn between these two colors shifts the mix toward the OY, as indicated in the diagram. If the RO is mixed with say, a B, this mix will shift the color mixture toward the BV. This is the best graphic that I have come across to explain where a near-neutral will fall within a color wheel or along the color spectrum (of reduced intensity, semi-neutral tones).

Judith Reeve, near-neutrals derived from R and RO mixes.

I experimented with these near-neutrals for the colors R and RO. If we look at the R (on the left), I mixed the R with YG, G (the direct neutral), GB. Pope calls these the O, N (neutral), BV near-neutrals. I have added white to these tones next to the mixes, so the nature of the color can be seen. With the RO I mixed with G, GB, B plus white again. Pope calls these the OY, N, V near- nuetrals. I also mixed the RO with the YG because Maratta calls this his OY bi color.

I also compared Maratta’s version with Pope’s version. Maratta’s appear in parentheses. Some of Maratta’s near-neutrals are mixed with slightly different combinations (which I prefer for their greater intensity) and some are exactly the same but may have a different nomenclature. Maratta’s near-neutrals, his term-bi colors, follow a progression along the color spectrum just as Ross’ and Pope’s versions.

I feel this experiment has helped me to understand the nature of the near-neutrals and how they tend or shift to a specific area of color within the color wheel or along the spectrum band. This will facilitate a more subtle understanding of neutrals especially for flesh tones. Also knowing where these near-neutrals fall along the spectrum could assist in creating areas of paint that can heighten one another through juxtaposition. A near-neutral OY could be placed along side a near-neutral BV to create a complementary interplay. Or a strong BV could find added intensity along side a near-neutral OY. One could play with optical mixing or a contrast of complements. Either way, with this knowledge, the tools are now in the hands of the artist.

[I would like to thank Bill Reed for pointing out this text, The Painter’s Terms, by Arthur Pope that has been so enlightening].