Delacroix’s Double Triangle- some thoughts

I teach a college class on color, and in my lectures, I compare the many ways painters have visually described the color spectrum. This includes the typical color wheel, Henri’s sequential layout of the color spectrum, and Delacroix’s double triangle. My students gain the most understanding from Delacroix’s double triangle. The two triangles interlock. The first triangle displays the primaries, red, yellow, and blue. The second triangle displays the secondaries, orange, green, and violet. These triangles interlock in a way that displays the complementary pairs- the point of say, red, is directly across from its complement, green.

Alexander Dumas visited Delacroix’s studio and related how this double triangle was drawn on the wall. Delacroix meditated on this arrangement daily. So last semester, when I drew this double triangle on the chalkboard, I too had some insight as I meditated on this diagram set side-by-side to Henri’s Full Spectrum arrangement. I began to reflect on the intersections that lie within the double triangle. These intersections reveal the tertiary mixes. Below yellow at the apex lies the OY and the YG. But I found it interesting that each primary color’s scale rests on that bar just under the apex of the primary that it describes- O, OY, YG, and G. The Y appears at the apex at the highest intensity. Below this, the combination of the OY and YG [Henri’s Y Bi color] is lower in intensity. On the wings of the bar, O and G display the lowest intensity of the Y on the yellow scale [Henri’s Y Hue]. Note that the OY and YG are closer to the Y and therefore, have a greater intensity than O and G which lie further out.

If I follow the perimeter of the triangle, I arrive at the RO and the GB near the center. When combined, these colors form a neutral and follow Henri’s ideas on a color’s scale. If we examine Henri’s Intensity Palettes, he allows for the transition of a color’s scale to travel through a set of neutrals before passing into the complementary scale, in this case, violet. The RO + GB is the proper neutral for this Y scale. As the triangle descends beyond this neutral, we arrive at the violet complement through the R + B, the VR + BV , and the V itself. Note, that there is no visual scale for the secondaries. To arrive at these scales of O, G, and V, one needs to mix the B + R; the B Bi + R Bi; and the B Hue + the R Hue. This is reflected in both Delacroix’s and Henri’s versions because if we examine the V end, all combinations give you V without any reduction in the intensity. Hence, one can only arrive at the secondary color scales by mixing combinations within the primary scales.

Another thought that struck me was the idea of “near-complements”. Henri spent much time in his Late Palettes investigating the use of “near-complementary” combinations. These near-complementary mixes add a greater vitality to the paint mix versus just using the complement to reduce the intensity within a complementary pair. Mixing Y + VR creates the OY, O, RO, and R sides of the chromatic circle; and Y + BV creates the YG, G, GB, and B sides of the chromatic circle. This also reflects Walter Sargent’s idea of the Chromatic Circle as evidenced in his book, “The Enjoyment and Use of Color.” Henri’s late Irish portraits of children are painted using this idea of a chromatic circle based on near-complementary relationships. This method allows the painting to be seen through a ‘colored lens’ concentrating and actualizing the power of the complements without excessive neutralization [which dulls the effectiveness of mixing the complements. I am not including laying the complements side-by-side, which itself is an activation that takes place in the mind of the viewer, and hence, has vitality].

The ideas of a color’s scale and a chromatic circle must have been in the mind of Delacroix as he reflected on this double triangle on his studio wall. I imagine him, very much like Henri, spending time mixing color combinations on his palette in an attempt to unlock a greater understanding of the power of color.

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.

One thought on “Delacroix’s Double Triangle- some thoughts”

  1. Hi Judith,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your post very much. Another artist, I also teach color theory to adults and always utilize the double triangle arrangement though a little differently. I’ve found that by flipping the order and putting the warm colors on the right side and cool colors on the left side there is a good correspondence with the CIE Lab color wheel of modern color science. As you note, this is a very useful mnemonic device for locating corresponding complementary colors. I’m a complementary painter of course and translate this to my palette layout arrangement. Thank you for doing this newsletter and very best success with your classes. Oh, there is a new book published by the Smithsonian that any color geek would enjoy looking at – Color: A Visual History from Newton to Modern Color Matching Guides, by Alexandra Loske.

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