Color Composition Seen Through The Eyes of Robert Henri

Copy of Robert Henri's "Johnny Manning"
Copy of Robert Henri’s “Johnny Manning” by Judith Reeve

Sometimes one of the most difficult things about painting is separating the subject before you from what is necessary to a successful painting. Color composition is one of those aspects that needs to be considered almost apart from the subject and needs to be considered early on in the painting process. One has to remember that the painting is paramount and it is the image alone that remains. The artist needs to consider the painting in terms of music, orchestrating color in such a way as to increase the emotive effect.

Planning the color composition is about designating the color of the basic areas of the image – their position, value and size and their overall relationship to each other. Robert Henri spent a lot of time early in his career, about 1908-1910, experimenting with the size of an area of color and what its intensity should be. He found that a painting appeared more luminous when combining grave colors with bright colors and that the grave colors should cover a larger area than the intense colors- a burning brightness amid a more subdued ever varying color range. This gave his paintings an immediate sense of light and life. By subdued areas I do not mean they were composed of blacks and neutrals but of the main components of the palette but in a lower intensity. And by bright areas, I mean a pure color, unadulterated, was used in the smallest area of the composition. This varying of intensities of the basic triadic palette allowed the colors to vibrate off  one another  in a harmonious fashion and still remain visible (one can see the triad throughout the painting maintaining its sense of a chord as Henri referred to it).

Once the basic areas of color are decided, one needs to be on the look out for any area in the composition where color relationships can be intensified or heightened- such as near compliments; neutrals composed of the triad placed to juxtapose and intensify a compliment; colored edges, where luminous edges come in contact with a dark, etc…  Seeking and selecting areas to heighten corresponding color relationships will add life and depth to a composition allowing the image to take hold in the mind of the viewer. We are only attentive to what is brought before our eyes in a forceful manner giving one a heightened experience to remember and recall repeatedly.

Lately, I have 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 radiating effect gives the image an overall glow of that single color – the color is felt everywhere, although it can only be directly observed at its intense center. Through this process one can achieve a sense of depth in the composition.

In Henri’s late work, he uses all of these elements of color but in a simplified fashion. In his late Irish portraits of children, one can see how he uses a background of radiating halos to describe the space behind the head. Sometimes they are “radiating intensities” and other times they are a combination of hues and bi-colors of the main triadic palette. But space is created more with color than value- with a more intense chroma less depth is described and subsequently with less chroma a greater spatial depth is felt. Color was Henri’s passion. During his career he explored many color compositional methods but his late work returns to its source. Henri designates areas of color as before but with a more mature understanding of its power to reveal the emotional state of his subject.

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.

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