Limitation as a Creative Tool

Considering the often overlooked value of limitation and the ways it can lead to exceptional results in the practice of painting.


Limitation is a term that, in most cases, one finds unacceptable. Limitation inhibits and contracts my freedom, to proceed as I want to. Limitation is presented as a negative. Why limit myself when I could use all the resources available to me? But it is in limitation that true inventiveness is released. There is a contained power in limitation. It can be compared to a volcano in which the lava has yet to erupt. There is force and pressure built-up from within. Limitation is that contained energy. Because it presents us with restrictions, limitation stimulates one to use one’s knowledge and resources to capacity. It leads to its opposite (or inversion), which is an ‘expansion’ of one’s own personal vision or new understanding of the material at hand. In other words, it creates a space for the creative spirit to act.

Henri understood that limitation is key to mastery of color. And he took this observation from previous masters, especially Frans Hals.

In regards to color and paint, a simple limitation would be a triad of the primary colors, red, yellow and blue. With such a palette, one would limit the mixing of colors to those that can be obtained by the combination of the primaries only. Therefore, the variety of oranges would be obtained by the mixture of red and yellow. When we begin to look at the palettes of Robert Henri, one can see that they are built on this idea of limitation. Henri understood that limitation is key to mastery of color. And he took this observation from previous masters, especially Frans Hals. If one could master a simple palette, then one could proceed to more and more complex palettes with greater virtuosity. This relates to the modern idea of ‘chunking’. One can master rather complex arrangements of figures or ideas by grouping them into coherent ’chunks’ that can more easily reside in the memory as well as form cognitive associations. This chunking makes recall easier. Grouping things in this way also increases one’s ability to absorb more and more complex figures.

If one can master a simple palette, then one has the ability to master more complex color relationships that come with an expanded palette. Through this method, one can develop an intuitive feeling for the manifold associations of color within the spectrum as well as color associations linked to the subject within the image. This limitation is an opportunity to test the subtlety of one’s color sensitivity.

Early on in my color studies, I was greatly impressed by Frans Hals’ color. It was harmonious and simple with beautiful flesh tones- from the ruddy complexion of the brewmeister to the clarity and purity of the merchants’ wife. What I found was that Hals relied on the power of a limited palette. It was limited in color choices as well as intensity. For color he used an intense red like cadmium red vermilion, a subdued yellow like raw sienna, and a neutral blue of ivory black. This is a simple triad of the primaries. But he also formed a hierarchy of intensity. You would think since he limited his palette he would desire to have all three primaries at full intensity, but rather he limits himself in this way also. And this limitation fulfills the circumstances in which he painted- portraits in a studio in the north of Europe.

But what surprised me about this palette was its incredible variety while maintaining an innate harmony. I was impressed how the subdued ivory black appeared quite blue in this setting. It was perfect for flesh tones, to turn the edges with a cool neutral. I also found that the green from ivory black and raw sienna, which formed many of Hals’ backgrounds, was an amazing base for the shadow color which then could be warmed with reflected light in the form of cadmium red and raw sienna. I also found the purples very subtle from a nice cool with the addition of white to a soft warm with the addition of more red. Another aspect that was remarkable was the innate value of this set palette. The ivory black is really as dark as one can go in paint. With the addition of white on the palette, this is the top range in the lights. The red and the raw sienna fall somewhere in the middle value range. Hals was certainly assisted in this regard  because of the costumes of the day being mainly black with stiff white collars. His images contain this bracket of value extremes in which the color- reds, greens, yellows and violets play against this value. And because of this readily available contrast, the eye can see more clearly the range of colors. This black and white foil allows my eye to see the richness of color available by comparison to these neutrals.

What I learned from such limitation is the importance of the color, of course, but also the critical aspect of value and color intensity in the selection of a palette. This was also Henri’s discovery. As he developed as a colorist, he took into account these limitations of value, intensity and chroma. He sought various kinds of limitation to create a crucible of creativity and imaginative instinct. He experimented relentlessly. Some palettes contain an infinite variety while others are even more limited in range than Hals. He followed rules of set palettes but he also broke the rules. He broke them because he had an understanding of color’s power to affect an emotional response in the viewer. Color was science, which every artist should be schooled in, but color is also the creative tool of the artist to affect a response of mind and heart. Limitation became, for Henri, the very means to creativity, the art spirit.

The Visual Innovation of Frans Hals


Two weeks ago, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Frans Hals show. It was quite hard to call it a show since most of the paintings are regularly on display. But there were many surprises. The first negative surprise was that I thought the original “Malle Babbe” was going to be there- but on display was a “Malle Babbe” that was considered an original until the 1980’s and now is considered to be a copy. It is part of the permanent collection as well. It is still quite beautiful and one can easily imagine the virtuosity of the original. The image itself is all Hals but the brushwork lacks the fluidity that is Hals’ signature style.

In the second room there was a truly beautiful Hals called the “Fisher Girl“( from a private collection). In this painting, a girl of about 14 is outside on a beach on a cloudy day. There are dunes and flying crows in the background. She is holding a basket of fish in her left arm and a small, wet fish aloft in her right hand. She is joyous and alive, smiling and laughing. The brushwork is amazingly brief and fluid. There is no interest in recording forms as forms to be modeled but rather how these forms appear as a visual phenomena on the retina of the eye. There are so many passages, especially on the shadow side, that are slashed and zigzagged. They have nothing to do with the solidity of the form. They are true and accurate, but they speak of an accuracy that goes beyond what we “know”, that rational part of our brain, and represent instead a fluid visual experience manifesting itself on the picture plane. This picture plane mimics the image as it appears on the retina of our eye without our translating it to pure form. Hals rejects form and takes a leap of faith that these strokes are the thing itself-the only thing necessary to convey the image. And within this boundary, Hals breaks from all that is past and projects himself into the future. He is the only one of his time that goes beyond form itself into a purely visual expression of life through the paint. Rembrandt is all form- solid, hard form. Vermeer is onto the same thing as Hals but he holds back. He reconsiders the picture plane through the camera obscura but he does not entirely succumb to it as Hals does.

The mastery of Hals lies on two planes. He is a master craftsman and he is a soul penetrated with pure emotion. His portraits speak of his love for humanity whether they be children or drunkards or old men who have lost a sense of self. His humility is ever-present in his work and through this humility one sees his amazing contact with other souls. His work is a record of this. The “Fisher Girl” is so profound. Her childish joy at being in the world and being with a painter, who is socially out of her realm, who finds companionship with her is evocative. It almost supplants my favorite Hals from The Museum of Fine Art in Boston, “The Man in the kimono” where the duality and division within a man’s being is laid bare but not with a brutality of judgement but with a generosity and communion- Hals recognizes his own inherent division and the division within everyman.

But the greatest surprise at the exhibit was a painting of Robert Henri. This painting , “Dutch Girl in White“, is in the permanent collection but is never on display. I’ve been waiting 20 years to see it and there it was like a vision- Frans Hals translated in a modern idiom. It evoked the wonderful brushstrokes and fluid application of Hals but was charged with brilliant color. This color transformed what could easily have been a traditional painting into a modern masterpiece. There was the same joyousness and child-like vivacity that Hals captured, but now there was no longer a social barrier to be overcome. Henri plants himself with the “every man”- as he called them,”my people“. Henri adds to this equation his own unique craftsmanship a superior color sensitivity. He fluctuates between his love of 19th century form modelling and the fluid visual experience of paint on canvas mimicking the image as it appears on the retina of the eye. He is the most satisfied with himself when he applies the paint freely as Hals did. He remarks in his journal that he wishes to repeat that flowing quality that he achieved in “Gypsy Man with Guitar“- the inherent liveliness and freedom of stroke that Hals would approve of. But now color, so important to modern man, becomes his hallmark and leads us into another dimension- one of unspoken feeling, that Hals was not able to express fully. The challenge is how can a contemporary artist build on this in a new way.