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.

The Third Line

Robert Henri's Intensity Palette by Judith Reeve. This version is built upon the chord OY-B-VR and includes a third line of related neutrals.
The Chord OY-B-VR. Line two are the Bi colors and line three are the neutrals.

Over the past year I have been working with Henri’s 50% Intensity Palette. As reviewed in a previous blog, this palette is built with half the palette at full intensity and the other half, which are the complements to these intense colors, reduced to a level 5 intensity. Henri built his palette by creating the most intense colors between RO-G, leaving GB-R reduced. This provides a wonderful inter-play between the complements and the near complements. If we reflect on Chevreul’s Laws, “Complements will appear more vital if the value and the intensity of the complementary pair is not the same.”

Recently, I have minimized this palette design even further, to focus on chords. I begin by drawing the three root notes of the chord from the larger 50% Intensity Palette. At first I thought this might not provide enough color and the image would appear too reduced in intensity. In the chord below, only the OY is at full intensity. But I found that this is not the case. In fact, I chose to expand my chord triad to two more triads of reduced intensity.

Example: If I take a chord triad OY-B-VR, my second line will be built from the pairing of these colors: OY +B, B+VR, VR+OY. Since these mixes contain complements, these mixes will appear as Bi colors and be semi-reduced (B+VR is not neutralized but will appear as a BV of reduced intensity. Both the B and the VR are already reduced by 50%). Next, I took these mixes and again paired them, (OY+B)+(B+VR); (B+VR)+(VR+OY); (VR+OY)+(OY+B) and what one gets are a series of neutrals, a B neutral, a VR neutral and an OY neutral. This occurs because each pairing of mixes has a dominant color that is the same as a color in the root triad, top line, of the chord. If we examine the image above, the second line contains a triad of Bi colors. Although, I expanded the OY+VR area because I found all 3 variations interesting for the image I was painting. And the third line contains just the three neutrals.

These neutrals were very dark and varied in color temperature. But what I found most fascinating about them is that they were most effective used straight in this form without further mixing. They perfectly balanced the bright colors and became, as Henri liked to refer to them as, “Living Colors”. These neutrals establish a dynamic foil to the more intense colors, giving those colors space to breathe and activate the color relationships within the chord.

Maratta had designed this third line early on as part of the Full Spectrum Palette, but Henri initially, rarely premixed this. You only find him later, pre-mixing this line. Henri obviously understood the third line and in fact mixes it in the act of painting. Henri often used these neutrals on the canvas, allowing the colors from line two to only partially mix, creating an optical mix of neutrality rather than achieving a neutral through direct mixing. Both methods were deployed by Henri.

When so many modern colors are bright and intense, it is often overlooked how little color is really necessary to achieve form and create a dynamic relationship between colors on the canvas. As the set palettes of many artists attest, you can go a long way with a limited palette. Harmony is more easily achieved within the confines of limitation. And with harmony comes an inherent strength in the composition. Henri believed that, “Culmination is greater than contrast.”

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