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

Building Up to Color

Judith Reeve, “Evening Light, North Branch”, 8″ x 12″. Variations of red and yellow hue.

I live in the Catskill mountains and December brings on the wonderful neutrals in the landscape. Not just the browns and grays, but the beautiful blue, yellow and red hues. These are neutrals that still maintain the character of the color that they are derived from. The distant mountains and hills are a series of subtle blue hues. The dead hay fields and scrub bushes are a series of soft, subdued yellows. And the dried goldenrod, briars and rough grasses bordering the fields are a dull red hue. Much of this is pervaded by a cool violet-blue cast from the sky. This time of year, it is rare to have an intense blue sky. We usually have to wait until it really gets cold and the sun begins to cycle back toward longer days.

Robert Henri is known for his vibrant color combinations set against a foil of semi-neutral tones. We take it for granted that he just boldly laid down his color in the intensity he intended immediately. This is true to some degree, but not completely. In the early 1920’s, Henri experimented with a new approach.

At this time, Henri sought to develop a palette that was completely permanent. Henri was not alone. There were many artists that were concerned about the quality of the pigments in artists materials. Post WW I, there was a cheapening of artist materials with new industrial processes. Europe had been devastated and much of the industrial west had suffered economically. So many of the pigments imported to the United States were of inferior quality and light-fastness and their pigment identification was questionable. Henri, along with H.G. Maratta and several other artists, formed The League of American Artists in order to create a handbook of “Artist’s Oil Pigments”. Henri was the main mover behind this investigation and a copy of this manuscript resides in Henri’s archive. It was proofread by George Bellows near its completion.

The reason I have added this historical data, is because Henri experimented with these permanent pigments and developed a method to incorporate earth tones and neutrals into his images in a new way. Henri referred to it as, “keeping down to color”. Henri would use,

“…strong grays in the half-tones and shadows. These modified in later painting… reserving for finish the higher notes.” [Henri’s notes to himself, Archive of Robert Henri, Yale University, Beinecke Library, Box 26, Folder 606, p. 24]

With this new method, Henri would strongly model the forms first with earth tones as well as, the hues from Maratta’s Spectrum Palette. These include the red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple hue. The primary hues are the root hues and the secondary hues are mixed from these. So, instead of a traditional under-painting in raw umber or ivory black, Henri would use the hues or a series of earth tones (such as Payne’s gray, Indian red, yellow ocher) to model the forms of the figure first and then build up to higher intensity colors to complete the image. This initial layer was not monochrome, but contained a low intensity version of the true color of the forms. These low intensity colors would also be of a lower value in this base layer. Low intensity and low value initially, then building up to full rich spectrum color in the final surface layer.

Judith Reeve, “Rising Vapor, December”, 8″ x 12″. Variations of blue hue in the distance.

In my landscape painting recently, I have begun using combinations of the red, yellow and blue hue to lay in the base of my coloring. Then, on top of this, I build up the more intense color on the surface, simultaneously allowing this color to mix into the initial layer or allowing it to remain a broken color juxtaposed against the initial lay in.

The combination of colors to create a hue need not always be the same. Each hue is made up of a mix of 2 secondaries (or tertiary combinations) such as blue hue= green + purple. But one can also vary which color combinations you draw from to mix the hue depending on how true a blue you desire. This is covered in some of my posts on a color’s scale as examined in the Triangular Palette. An example, for blue hue: rather than G + P, I could mix GB + P. This mix produces a cooler and bluer combo and comes between the hue and the Bi color along the color’s scale.

Judith Reeve, “Coming Front, December”, 8″ x 12″. Variations of blue, red and yellow hue.

What is interesting about these hues laid in as a base to the more intense colors is that this combination of pigments that are laid side by side or loosely mixed, produce an optical effect called gradation. This was an optical effect Delacroix utilized that was later optimized by the Impressionists. Gradation creates a sensation whereby, an area that appears as a single color field, is in actuality, composed of several variations of a color, shifting in color temperature, intensity and value.

In my next newsletter I will touch upon mixing the hues and several combinations that I found effective for winter landscape painting. Please sign up for my newsletter and become a member of the Attentive Equations community of artists.