Neutrals in the Practice of Henri and Delacroix

An exploration of the masterful use of neutral colors to create vitality in the works of Robert Henri and Eugène Delacroix.

Robert Henri, "Irish Boy in Blue Denim"
Robert Henri, “Irish Boy in Blue Denim”

Both Robert Henri and Eugène Delacroix were fascinated by the power of grey or neutral tones to add a dynamic visual component within a painting. Traditionally, a neutral is a color that appears grey or brown and is composed, in most cases, of a combination of complements or a triad of the primaries. It can be observed in the figures of Rubens, in the flesh tones, as the neutral tone in the transitional passages between the half-tones and the shadow edge. This neutral tone, though non-specific in color, is what is needed in those passages that are indefinite and mysterious. This neutral takes on the complementary color of those tones it is near, thus creating a visual inter-play of colors that are optical and therefore more dynamic. Optical changes in color are effective primarily because the mixing of the pigments takes place in the mind of the observer. It fluctuates, vibrates and creates vitality on the surface of the canvas that cannot be achieved in any other way.

These neutral tones set against stronger colors create a felt visual contrast of complements as well as a distinct contrast of value. Both the optical complement and higher contrast create a vital energy within the composition. Delacroix takes his cue from nature,

“During this same walk…I noticed some extraordinary effects. It was sunset; the chrome and lake tones were most brilliant on the side where it was light and the shadows were extraordinarily blue and cold. And in the same way, the shadows thrown by the trees, which were all yellow and directly lit by the suns rays, stood out against part of the grey clouds which were verging on blue. It would seem that the warmer the lighter tones, the more nature exaggerates the contrasting grey…What made this effect appear so vivid in the landscape was precisely this law of contrast.” (Eugene Delacroix, Journal, p.145) 

Henri reflects,

“…there is a power in a palette which is composed of both pure and grave colors (neutrals/semi-neutrals)…In paintings made with such a palette… we find an astounding result. It is the grave colors, which were so dull on the palette that become the living colors in the picture. The brilliant colors are their foil. The brilliant colors remain more in their actual character of bright paint, are rather static, and it is the grave colors, affected by juxtaposition, which undergo the transformation that warrants my use of the word ‘living’.” (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p.64)

Henri takes this idea, which has its origin in simultaneous contrast, and applies it to his work in such a way as to create a feeling of the constant movement of color within the image. “They (grave colors) seem to move- rise and fall in their intensity, are in perpetual motion- at least, so effect the eye. They are not fixed. They are indefinable and mysterious.”

Both artists engaged in constant experimentation with this interaction between the neutrals and the more brilliant hues. As related by Alexander Dumas in his Lecture on Delacroix, 1864,

“Delacroix told me that it was while painting “Marino Faliero” he had found his color theory. He needed for his decapitated doge and senators, golden coats, and had unnecessarily used the brightest yellow: its coats yet, remained dull. He resolved to go to the Louvre to study the Rubens… He then instructed his chambermaid…to fetch a cab. Jenny came… to announce that the gig was at the door. Delacroix, always short on time, ran to the vehicle requested. Before the gig, with fierce yellow, he stopped short. It was yellow like this he needed! In the position where the car was placed there were shadows that made it stand out. But these shadows were purple. No need to go to the Louvre; Delacroix returned, he held to his purpose.” (Alexander Dumas, Talks on Delacroix, 1864).

Delacroix subsequently applied this idea of using a grey to surround and therefore, enhance and magnify the intensity of the brighter colors in a composition. Henri follows suit, “In experimentation I have seen an arrangement of a bright color and a very mud-like neutral pigment present the phenomenon of a transference of brilliancy- the neutral presenting for a moment a sizzling complementary brilliance far overpowering the ‘pure color’ with which it was associated.”(AS, p.65)

Henri realizes the potential that the neutral presents and develops this idea further, taking Delacroix’s discoveries in a new direction. Henri found that by allowing the neutral to maintain the character of the color it represents, one could heighten the optical effects of the neutral when it is juxtaposed against a high intensity color. What do I mean by this? Henri created neutrals that no longer depended on the complements or a triad of primaries. He chose, instead, to mix the secondaries together to achieve a low intensity combination of a primary. An example: By mixing green+violet, one could get a low intensity blue that borders on neutrality yet maintains its blueness. (See Bellows and the Pervading Neutral) If one chose to place this neutralized blue near an orange in the composition, it would create a heightened feeling in the orange as well as visually turning the blueish neutral into the perfect complement in regards to color and tone. Chevreul discovered that this was best achieved by these colors being near one another but not touching. This placement allowed the neutral to become the necessary complement to the high chroma color. Chevreul also recommends that the neutral cover a greater surface area on the canvas, leaving the high intensity color area smaller. Also, in regards to value, the neutral tends to be more effective if it is darker in value than the more intense pigment. So the amount of neutrality, the surface area covered by each color and the value contribute to the optical dynamic of movement and vigor in a composition.

Delacroix’s Palette for the “Nymph”

The use of temperature by Delacroix leads to the dynamic understanding of the simultaneous contrast of colors.

Copy of Delacroix's "Nymph" from the Apollo Ceiling, by Judith Reeve
Copy of Delacroix’s “Nymph” from the Apollo Ceiling, by Judith Reeve

I have re-immersed myself in the Journal of Eugene Delacroix.  This work has always been a part of my aesthetic inquiry since I first delved into it as a student. Unfortunately, many of his color notes on his paintings are missing from the English translation of the Journal and the complete Journal is in French only after all this time. But there are still some color notes in the Phaidon edition that are worth exploring.

This past week, I have been experimenting with the palette that Delacroix used on the Apollo Ceiling in the Louvre. This is really a masterpiece and exhibits all of those qualities that Delacroix pushed himself to achieve- mastery of color; the suppression of details; and a largeness of effect. In the journal he lays out his process of laying in the color on the Venus, the children and the Nymph. All of the colors of the palette are inter-related between the various figures. It is not a simple palette by far yet it is one where Delacroix expends his energy achieving form through the use of a wide range of color temperature. Color temperature more than a change in value allows the forms to be felt. Therefore he expresses this color temperature change in very subtle ways. One way that he achieves this is by mixing a  key color, such as violet, and creating that mixture in three different intensities with three different blues but using the same red-orange. So the red-orange ties the three different blues together. Here is an example of the violet with three different hues, in three intensities moving toward a near neutral:

Prussian Blue + Vermilion = violet (this carries the highest intensity)

Cobalt Blue + Vermilion= violet ( slightly less intense and more towards a deep violet brown)

Cassel Earth + Vermilion=  violet (least intense- nuetral)

Delacroix often spoke to the colorist, Michel-Eugene Chevreul and through these conversations about color, Delacroix came to understand the idea of  “simultaneous contrast of colors“. He notes in his journal how he observed this phenomena in nature and how he began to apply it in his painting. In the figure of the “Nymph”, Delacroix applies this idea of contrast in a very subtle and modern way.

Delacroix develops a palette that is much like Robert Henri’s. Both developed the subtle contrast between tertiaries such as OY to BV or a contrast of near complements such as OY to V. But what is different about the two artist is that Henri strove for an underlying unity and simplicity of color through a palette based on sets of triads whereas, Delacroix strove for diversity of hue held in balance by complements or near complements. So this combined with a hierarchy of intensity allows Delacroix a full range of color temperature on which to model the figure. As Delacroix paints more and more murals, which require a composition to have less contrast and lighter values but a more compelling sense of color, this becomes his primary mode of working.

Here is Delacroix’s Palette:

Vermillion    Cadmuim Yellow (or Antimony)    Naples Yellow(this was only used with a Viridian mix)    Viridian       Prussian Blue    Cobalt Blue      Cassel Earth    White

"Nymph" first lay-in
“Nymph” first lay-in

These are the mixes he describes:

Lay-in of the Flesh:

Vermilion + White; Cadmuim Yellow + white; to these mixes is added Viridian+ Naples yellow +white; so one achieves an orange flesh color that is slightly neutralized by a yellow green.

He then creates a series of violets in several states of neutralization:

Prussian blue + vermilion: This is the primary violet he uses and it is mixed into the shadow area to cool it off

Cobalt+ vermilion: This is used for cast shadows and to render the drawing at the end

Cassel earth + vermilion (this is the most nuetralized): This is used along the dark shadow edge

Vermilion + white: This is thickly applied to the brightest lights

Cadmium yellow + white: Highlight

Viridian + naples + white: green half-tones

Prussian blue + vermilion +white: cool blue half-tones; This combination is also used as a glaze over the shadow side to unify it and also before applying the reflected lights

Vermilion + Cadmium yellow + white: a darker value used for the reflected light. The viridian + naples can also be added here

I found these combinations produced very surprising results that were colorful yet unified. I also found that the violets did not compete against one another and that the subtle variations between the blues added variety within the shadow area that might have otherwise appeared to unified. I also found that the constant juxtaposition of the warms and cools added a sinctillating effect. I also found that the yellow highlight worked exceptionally well in areas where the violet predominated. Delacroix took this technique from Rubens who used it constantly, although he could not identify why since one is apt to make the highlight violet.

Experimenting with color combinations is a practice that I use to enhance my feeling for color as well as my sense of color memory. With such a practice, whether it has a practical side or not, allows one to develop a heightened sensitivity to color increasing one’s awareness to color in the natural world. But more importantly, I am drawn to color and am fascinated by the effects of juxtaposed combinations. Delacroix states that color is the most important factor in painting because it affects the viewer immediately and unconsciously before the subject itself is understood. It is the musical quality of paint.