Color Composition as Seen Through The Eyes of Robert Henri-Part 2


This post hopes to continue some of the ideas on color composition that I published last week. I mentioned that I had been experimenting with what I call “radiating intensities.” One can achieve a heightened sense of a particular color by presenting that color in several intensities placed next to each other. Taking a single color in full intensity and surround it with successive variations of that color by ever so slightly neutralizing it until the color itself appears as a subdued hue. This produces an effect similar to what Henri called the “super color“. This juxtaposition of several hues of the same color in close relationship to one another gives a painting  an over-riding sense or feeling of a particular color. One could say an atmosphere of a certain light.

Henri found several ways to explore this theme. Another color arrangement that he experimented with was “three set against a compliment.” He would compose a painting of an arrangement of say O-OY-Y with a complimentary accent of Blue- violet. The orange-yellow would be framed by near colors on the palette , orange and yellow. And the blue-violet would stand apart as an accent in full chroma and also as a way to neutralize its compliment and near compliments. This produces a unity  of a certain light but with a variety of similar colors. The compliment becomes the “key” to the piece- the more intense chroma of the complimentary color shining amidst the others. The near compliments presenting in effect a greater liveliness than the direct compliment. The grouping of O-OY-Y can vary in intensity and can even be entirely neutralized. But this neutralization is more effective with near compliments than direct compliments. Brilliance is achieved through a duality- OY to B V, the orange-yellow covering a larger area of the composition with greater variety of chroma and value; The blue-violet appearing in greater intensity but covering a smaller area of the composition.



In Chevreul’s theories on complimentary colors, Chevreul states that when  compliments are placed next to each other they have the effect of neutralizing one another. But when they are placed near each other with space placed in between they have the effect of intensifying one another. Near colors ( such as red, red-orange, orange)  placed side by side also have the effect of intensifying each other. It is these two theories that Henri takes advantage of. “Three set against the compliment” combines both phenomena. As Henri creates an area radiating with hues of a certain color creating a beautiful and harmonious feeling of light and space, he then adds the compliment, placing it in an area that contains a near compliment or a neutralized hue of the compliment itself. There is brilliance in this effect from two views- that of the juxtaposition of compliments in several hues and also that of combining grave colors and bright colors.


Henri’s challenge to all of us is to study continuously and to seek the nature of the phenomena we profess to know. Although the spirit of a painting will always be paramount to Henri, he sought in a way artist’s have since the Renaissance- by combining the scientific study of natural phenomena (anatomy, methods and materials) with the study of visual phenomena (perspective, color, light). These things placed in the crucible that is the artist become alchemically transformed by his spirit.