Henri’s analysis of Alizarin

Robert Henri, Mary Gallagher, 1924

Robert Henri, Mary Gallagher, 1924

One of the most difficult tasks for every artist is determining which pigments in their oil paints are permanent and can be intermixed. The science behind pigment permanency is not always clear. Much of our understanding of pigment permanency is derived from artists like Henri, who, through the centuries, have conducted their own experiments in order to develop a permanent palette in oils or watercolors and then pass this knowledge on to their students.

In the recent past, there have been chemists who have acted as authorities on pigment permanency, such as A.H. Church, “The Chemistry of Paints and Painting” (1890) and “Color: an Elementary Manual for Students (1907); Maximilian Toch, “The Chemistry and Technology of Mixed Paints” (1907), “Materials for a Permanent Painting” (1911), and “How to Paint a Permanent Picture” (1922); as well as some older names such as Jacques Blockx, and Winsor and Newton, both paint manufacturers. Ralph Mayer’s “The Artist’s Handbook” (1940) is a more contemporary analysis of artists’ paints. This type of research is crucial as the integrity of one’s work depends on the quality and permanency of the pigments. I use the Color of Art Pigment Database to determine how permanent a pigment is and whether there are any issues with mixing that pigment with others on my palette. Modern dyes, introduced in the 20th century, are often mixed into cheaper artists’ paint, affecting the lightfastness and the overall permanency of the paint.

Henri spent much time seeking a permanent palette that could be used with or without Alizarin Crimson. This pigment is very popular today as it was in Henri’s time. Although Permanent Alizarin was recently developed, this pigment is unlike the original Alizarin Crimson. And once you have used the original, replacing it with the pinker Permanent Alizarin is hard.

Henri used Alizarin Crimson briefly in his palettes focused on intensity in the early 1920s. When I experimented with these intensity palettes, I got addicted to Alizarin Crimson all over again and had to ween myself from its use. Note Alizarin tends to darken in contact with many pigments, such as Aureolin Yellow. I have seen artists work produced in the ’70s-’80s already darkened by the Alizarin coming in contact with pigments that it is incompatible with. I would urge all artists using this pigment to ensure their palette is archival by conducting the proper research. Henri later abandons using Alizarin for other pigments that are known to be permanent and can easily be intermixed.

Henri spent two-plus years researching and experimenting with pigment permanency to produce a document for members of The League of American Artists. George Bellows and H.G. Maratta also participated in generating this book for the League, Bellows as an editor and Maratta as an advisor. It was never published, as the League disbanded shortly after its completion.

Robert Henri Archive, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT

Robert Henri, Artists Pigment Notebook, Box 25, f. 580, p. 5. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. [Not to be reproduced for commercial purposes].

I want to share Henri’s permanent palettes that he developed through this research and experimentation with my readers. Henri ends the document for the League by providing two permanent palettes- a permanent palette safe with Alizarin and a permanent palette that does not use Alizarin. You may or may not be someone who uses Alizarin; either way, these palettes describe a series of pigments that are fully compatible.

The palette which may be used safely in conjunction with Madders and Alizarin:

  • Madders, such as Rose Madder
  • Alizarin, such as Alizarin Crimson
  • Mars Violet
  • Indian Red
  • Vermilion
  • Light Red
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Cadmium
  • Viridian
  • Davy Grey
  • Ultramarine blues
  • Paynes Gray
  • Black
  • Zinc White

The palette which excludes Madders and Alizarin:

  • Indian Red
  • Venetian Red
  • Vermilion- cannot be used with lead white
  • Mars Violet
  • Mars Red
  • Light Red
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Mars Orange
  • Burnt Umber
  • Cadmium
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Raw Sienna
  • Mars Yellow
  • Viridian
  • Davey Grey
  • Raw Umber
  • Mars Brown
  • Ultramarine Blues
  • Paynes Gray
  • Lamp Black
  • Ivory Black
  • Zinc white
  • Lead White- Henri notes there might be an issue with ultramarine and lead white

These palettes contain a more extensive array of colors than one would need. Henri indicates within his document that he would develop limited palettes that would be more practical for painting. From the second palette, Henri selects three possible versions:

Zinc W.- Vermilion- Cadmium- Ultramarine

Zinc W.- Vermilion- Cadmium- Viridian-Ultramarine

Lead W.- Indian R./or Mars V.-Venetian R./ or Bt. Sienna- Cadmium/ or Yellow Ochre- Viridian/ or Davey Grey- Black

Henri provides these limited palettes as suggestions for working palettes. Because each palette is permanent, the artist may choose any combination of the selected pigments to build his working palette. One is not obligated to choose those pigments that Henri has selected.

I hope Henri’s experimentation can provide some insight into the pigments you have already chosen to work with on your palette, or if there is a problem of permanency on your palette, you might be able to remedy the issue. Any questions about these palettes? Use the contact page to reach out.

Robert Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922 

Judith Reeve, My version of Robert Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922-E

As my readers know, Robert Henri conducted intensive research into color palettes and contemporary color theory. But he also studied colored pigments to learn about their archival permanency and whether certain pigments could be mixed without affecting their integrity. Post WW I, artists’ pigments became corrupted with impurities because the war damaged Europe and its industrial complex. America had previously imported many pigments used to manufacture artists’ oil paints from Germany, Holland, and northern Europe. With this infrastructure damaged, artists’ pigments lacked quality. Henri, along with H.G. Maratta and George Bellows began an organization to support artists, The League of American Artists. Henri was tasked with studying artist pigments and producing a guide as to the permanency of artists’ oil paints on the market to help artists maintain a high level of material integrity in their work.

In Henri’s Pigment Notebooks, you see Henri looking at the pigment strength, purity, and lightfastnes of the color of, say, ultramarine blue and comparing it across all available brands. Henri also compared material, and chemical analysis by leading experts such as Blockx, Toch, Church, and others including some manufacturers like Winsor & Newton. Henri produced a document for The League of American Artists to be distributed to its members. It was in the style of a workbook in which artists could fill blank pages within the book as they conducted their personal research into their paint and pigments. This book was never published as the League disbanded for unknown reasons, probably financial.

What came out of this research by Henri was the development of a series of palette designs based on his study of pigments both organic and inorganic as well as, new synthetic pigments. Henri referred to these palettes as “The Permanent Palettes” because he was sure of their inherent integrity, and that each pigment could be intermixed on this palette with guarantees as to its archival quality. Henri began this series of palettes around 1920-21. I have reproduced here Henri’s Permanent Palette 1922-E. I chose to work with this palette because Henri synthesized and harmonized the Permanent Palette design over several versions landing on this final palette.

In this Permanent Palette, 1922-E, Henri’s goal was “to build up to color.” He begins on the top row (horizontal) by keeping his tones deep in value and suppressed in intensity. Most colors along this top-line contain some earth pigments with the exception of viridian [third from right], which suppress the chroma. Then in the descending columns, Henri increases the value and the intensity simultaneously in the middle values. Then, as the value increases with the addition of white added to the mixtures, the color loses its intensity. Therefore, the bottom of each column contains colors that are reduced in intensity by adding white, which is a neutralizer. The light tones of VR, BV, and GB, Henri will use as his lighteners (these will be used as substitutes for the raw white). So what you see is a progression from a dark semi-neutralized tone, to a middle value of high intensity followed by a reduction in intensity in the lightest notes. The highest chroma will fall within the halftone range on a portrait. [Note that the above version of this palette, I have replicated from Henri’s notes. I have also added wax medium to this version to suppress the reflection on the pigments. This has slightly lightened the overall value of the palette in this photo reproduction].

Intensity is concentrated in the middle-value range in this palette. Henri’s paintings at this time express color emerging out of a darkened neutrality as in “Bernadita,” 1922. These images seem a throwback to an earlier Henri style and may reflect Henri’s own emotions about the war in Europe. They are reminiscent of his earlier Spanish types. But these new images do not rely on simple blacks and browns as his earlier work had done. Henri imbues this new work with color that simmers below the surface and is not immediately felt. These deeper tones interact with the more intense colors in the middle range through simultaneous contrast- deep complementary tones highlighting the higher chroma areas. These images are experiments that help Henri realize his command of color in the late Irish portraits of children of 1926-28. Henri, in the late portraits, consolodates his color expression and allows color to vibrate on the surface of the canvas and within the viewer’s mind through optical transformations.

Judith Reeve, Color Field of mixes derived from Henri’s Permanent Palette of 1922-E

My interest in these “Permanent Palettes” connects to my recent interest in George Inness’ landscapes. There is a prevailing sense of suppressing a portion of the full palette through neutral mixes and allowing other parts to reach full chroma. Combining these opposing levels of intensity creates a dynamic force within the image. By holding this force down, one actually gains in color power. It is an interplay that allows me to understand more clearly, the optical effects achieved through the juxtaposition of the large masses, the power of the neutral, and the movement between color temperature in the modeling of forms.

This type of experimentation opens one up to new ways of working and thinking. Henri’s goal was to engage in each painting moment as a new experience in which the artist brings to bear his whole being, not relying on rote habits of past painting methods.

“Personal experimentation is revealing, and, once you get into it, immensely engaging.”

Robert Henri, Art Spirit, p. 60