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.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

5 thoughts on “Color Composition as Seen Through The Eyes of Robert Henri-Part 2”

  1. I have really enjoyed reading your blog, lots of great thoughts on color and temperature!
    I wonder, concerning harmonies, do you think color harmony can be separated from value harmonies? I mean, I have seen many very pleasing B/W, greyscale/monotone compositions but I’m not sure that I can think of one instance when I have seen a painting with a poorly composed value structure saved by its color choices.
    I believe that underneath all successful, harmonious color compositions lies the essential value arrangements that make it “easy on the eye”.
    Any Thoughts?

    1. As you say color and value are inseparable. But value alone cannot carry everything. One cannot detach our innate sensitivity to color and the emotional impact it can have on the viewer. Harmony has many aspects. All exceptional painting does not solely rely on value, yet one without the proper value relationships does fall flat. But painting that contains an exceptional color balance and harmony speaks to a greater degree. The impact is felt on many levels: visually tantalizing and emotionally intense, both appealing to an unconscious aspect that is not easily identified. Baudelaire expresses the richness of both worlds- the graphic as well as color:

      “One can be both a colorist and a draftsman, but only in a certain sense. Just as a draftsman can be be a colorist in his broad masses, so a colorist can be a draftsman through the complete logic of his linear composition; but one of these qualities always absorbs the detail of the other. Colorists draw like nature: their figures are defined naturally by the harmonious interplay of colored masses. Pure draftsman are philosophers and abstractors of quintessences. Colorists are epic poets.”( What is Romanticism? 1846)

  2. This is fascinating material. Color theory that has practical application for the representational painter as you demonstrate so well in your artwork and examples in your posts. I have begun using a couple of the color chords in my work and found that it has helped a great deal in giving my paintings color harmony. Being new to using the ideas you describe in (Color Composition as Seen Through The Eyes of Robert Henri) I find trying to apply them quite challenging. I cannot overstate what an enormous help watching you paint (At the Woodstock School of Art or out land scape painting) is in my ability to put this knowledge to use. It is incredible to see what can be done when I try to paint a subject using one of the chords and then to watch someone who is really accomplished at it paint the same subject. For me I believe it is essential to see it done. Thank you for being so generous Judith.

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