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

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.