Frans Hals and a Simple Palette

When I was a student at the Lyme Academy, I began painting with a set of 8- 10 colors on my palette. This is how I began because it was the selected palette of my instructor. I came about the proper relationships of color by sheer repetition. Repeating the same combinations over and over again. Only through trial and error and a memory for the right combinations did I achieve a painting similar to my subject. There was no basis or underlying structure to the palette. I find this is still the case with students who enter my classes. They have taken many courses with many excellent instructors and have adopted this color from one instructor and this combination of colors from another. I look at the palette that they are working with and  it is chaotic. There are too many colors for one thing and there is a repetition of colors- 2 blues or three reds etc.

“Simplicity is the hallmark of genius”. This should be written on every artist’s paint box. My own search for a palette that was simple and relied on some basic system lead me to one of my favorite artists, Frans Hals. In the 19th century he was hailed by such artist as Courbet, Sargent, Henri and Delacroix. He was admired greatly for his brevity of brush stroke and his ability to produce what appears directly on the retina of the eye. But I began to look at his color. The utter simplicity of his palette was striking. He achieved a full range of values as well as a variety of color temperature  all with a wonderful sense of harmony.

Hals’ palette was based on the three primaries. One of which had a greater intensity than the others. For this palette I used: Cad. red medium; raw sienna deep (Old Holland produces the only raw sienna that is adequate); and ivory black. Although, when researching the chemical extractions from some of Hals’ paintings, academics say there possibly was a green in his palette, I never found it necessary to add one ( I copied “Madam Bodolphe” at Yale university Art Museum and my palette came pretty close to what Hals used- give or take the heavy varnish applied to it and its age. And in regard to the stability of the pigments, it was quite amazing to see very little discoloration or damage to his work).

I took these three primaries and I expanded them to 12 colors, mixing first the secondaries and then expanding my range by  mixing these with their neighbor. This is what it looked like:

R (cad. red med.)              Y (raw sienna deep)              B ( ivory black)

O ( R+ Y)                                     G (Y+B)                            P (B+R)

PR – R -RO – O – OY- Y – YG- G – GB – B -BP –P               [ This is the set palette]

What I found in this simple palette was that it expressed all the inherent potential of each of the colors. And I found that its potential was far more vast than I could have imagined. Part of its expressiveness is based on intensity. Two colors are grave and one color, that being the red ,was intense. This variety of intensity added to its success.

I used this palette exclusively for two to three years. It was some of the most constructive and rigorous work I have done as an artist. It allowed me to see the complex in the simple and simplicity in what at first appears complex. I found it much easier to achieve harmony; greater control of temperature and value; and to use intensity as a key to color composition. There was something solemn and simple yet beautiful about the limitedness of this palette. It expressed many of the attributes I see in Hals work.

Love of Hals led me to the work of Robert Henri (although as a footnote, nothing is always clear cut- I was reading Henri and delving into his archive during these experiments and much of his influence can be felt also in this work- i.e.- the spectrum palette). Henri, who himself was attracted to Hals, had a developed sense of color and based the underlying sense of his palette on Hals and the work of H.G. Marratta (color theorist and paint manufacturer). With this basis, I allowed myself to seek color for its emotional impact beyond these initial explorations. Henri became my primary tutor from this point on. His use of color appealed to my modern sensibilities. I wished to transform my work from its academic beginnings to work that tapped into our modern sensitivity to color, allowing the image to speak in those terms.


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The Artists’ Concern for Analogical Relationships


The word “analogy” is used quite often by artists and poets to describe comparable relationships between images, objects and ideas. It also includes those relationships that exist between colors, lines and tones. In the 19th century this concept of equivalency or likeness of relations was in the air. It shows up in the work of Charles Baudelaire as “correspondence,” Eugene Chevreul as “‘complementaries,” Robert Henri as “analogies,” and Alfred Stieglitz as “equivalents”. The “golden section,” “dynamic symmetry,” and “rebatement” also fall into this realm of ideas. This search for phenomena that supports the artists own experience of balance and harmony in nature mirrors something that lies within the imagination of the artist. The  imagination seeks its counterpart in one’s experience in the world. It seeks to give what appears fleeting some permanence. Ibn’Arabi calls this place of meeting the “isthmus”- the place where the imagination meets the world as an image in a mirror, one reflecting the other in an analogical way. The artist intuits these real relationships between what lies within and the world without and he seeks phenomena to verify his feelings.

Because of this inherent need of the artist to find an insight into the greater forces at work behind his fascination with visual phenomena, there is a constant dialogue that takes place between the artist and his own work as well as a dialogue among other artists and writers. Georges Seurat in his published letter to Maurice Beaubourg, August 28, 1890 states that, “Art is harmony. Harmony is the analogy of contrary elements and the analogy of similar elements of tone, color and line, considered according to their dominants and under the influence of light, in gay, calm, or sad combinations. The contraries are: For tone, one more clear (luminous) for one more dark; For color, the complementaries, that is to say a certain red opposed to its complementary (green), ect.; For line, those forming a right angle.” (Joshua Taylor, Nineteenth- Century Theories of Art, p.541) Seurat’s fascination with analogical relationships, in regard to color especially, lead to the movement of Neo- impressionism. Robert Henri refers to these ideas as valuable stating he has read Signac’s book on Neo-Impressionism in french and there is much to glean from it. (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.60)  Although Henri never fully accepts the Neo-Impressionist idea of a full division of color, he obviously is in tune to Seurat’s idea of “contraries”. Henri’s attraction to Seraut rests particularly with color. He has previously explored H.G. Marratta’s analogical relationship between color and musical chords and Denman Ross’s color and value analogies in regard to planes. It is not surprising that Seurat’s concept of “contraries” intrigues him.

Henri constantly searched for a real relationship between what he painted and the process of painting, itself. Painting should entail in a very real way some quality of the subject beyond the specific conditions of the light.  This is where color came to take up such a fascination for him. Color became a tool by which Henri could describe his subject in an analogical way- that color could describe the character and the emotional state of the subject far more clearly than the pure skill of rendering accurately. Although, Henri’s portraits are clearly rendered with feeling and accuracy.

In Henri’s late work- the Irish portraits painted in the last years of his life-one can see the great unity he achieves.  His subjects are simple and pure- like a Gallic ballad or a line from the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Henri honors “his people” and seeks to find the analogical means that will mirror this beauty and simplicity. His color analogies of “3 or 5 set against the complement” become the method he chooses that in a real way reflect the mystery of his Irish subjects. The emotional content of the image finds its practical and analogical relationship in a simple palette- the inner life finding its isthmus to the world.

An artist needs to foster this intuitive feeling for analogical relationships and seek the means or methods necessary to join them to one’s subject forming an image that goes beyond the mere descriptive. But Henri also adds a warning to this:

“It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive…it would be far wiser to develop creative power by constant search for means particular to a motive already in mind, by studying and developing just that technique which you feel the immediate need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or emotion which has moved you to expression.You will not only develop your power to see the means, but you will acquire power to organize the means to a purpose…You will become a master and organizer of means, and you will understand the value of means as no mere collector of means ever can.” (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.220)