Henri’s analysis of Alizarin

Robert Henri, Mary Gallagher, 1924

Robert Henri, Mary Gallagher, 1924

One of the most difficult tasks for every artist is determining which pigments in their oil paints are permanent and can be intermixed. The science behind pigment permanency is not always clear. Much of our understanding of pigment permanency is derived from artists like Henri, who, through the centuries, have conducted their own experiments in order to develop a permanent palette in oils or watercolors and then pass this knowledge on to their students.

In the recent past, there have been chemists who have acted as authorities on pigment permanency, such as A.H. Church, “The Chemistry of Paints and Painting” (1890) and “Color: an Elementary Manual for Students (1907); Maximilian Toch, “The Chemistry and Technology of Mixed Paints” (1907), “Materials for a Permanent Painting” (1911), and “How to Paint a Permanent Picture” (1922); as well as some older names such as Jacques Blockx, and Winsor and Newton, both paint manufacturers. Ralph Mayer’s “The Artist’s Handbook” (1940) is a more contemporary analysis of artists’ paints. This type of research is crucial as the integrity of one’s work depends on the quality and permanency of the pigments. I use the Color of Art Pigment Database to determine how permanent a pigment is and whether there are any issues with mixing that pigment with others on my palette. Modern dyes, introduced in the 20th century, are often mixed into cheaper artists’ paint, affecting the lightfastness and the overall permanency of the paint.

Henri spent much time seeking a permanent palette that could be used with or without Alizarin Crimson. This pigment is very popular today as it was in Henri’s time. Although Permanent Alizarin was recently developed, this pigment is unlike the original Alizarin Crimson. And once you have used the original, replacing it with the pinker Permanent Alizarin is hard.

Henri used Alizarin Crimson briefly in his palettes focused on intensity in the early 1920s. When I experimented with these intensity palettes, I got addicted to Alizarin Crimson all over again and had to ween myself from its use. Note Alizarin tends to darken in contact with many pigments, such as Aureolin Yellow. I have seen artists work produced in the ’70s-’80s already darkened by the Alizarin coming in contact with pigments that it is incompatible with. I would urge all artists using this pigment to ensure their palette is archival by conducting the proper research. Henri later abandons using Alizarin for other pigments that are known to be permanent and can easily be intermixed.

Henri spent two-plus years researching and experimenting with pigment permanency to produce a document for members of The League of American Artists. George Bellows and H.G. Maratta also participated in generating this book for the League, Bellows as an editor and Maratta as an advisor. It was never published, as the League disbanded shortly after its completion.

Robert Henri Archive, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT

Robert Henri, Artists Pigment Notebook, Box 25, f. 580, p. 5. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT. [Not to be reproduced for commercial purposes].

I want to share Henri’s permanent palettes that he developed through this research and experimentation with my readers. Henri ends the document for the League by providing two permanent palettes- a permanent palette safe with Alizarin and a permanent palette that does not use Alizarin. You may or may not be someone who uses Alizarin; either way, these palettes describe a series of pigments that are fully compatible.

The palette which may be used safely in conjunction with Madders and Alizarin:

  • Madders, such as Rose Madder
  • Alizarin, such as Alizarin Crimson
  • Mars Violet
  • Indian Red
  • Vermilion
  • Light Red
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Cadmium
  • Viridian
  • Davy Grey
  • Ultramarine blues
  • Paynes Gray
  • Black
  • Zinc White

The palette which excludes Madders and Alizarin:

  • Indian Red
  • Venetian Red
  • Vermilion- cannot be used with lead white
  • Mars Violet
  • Mars Red
  • Light Red
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Mars Orange
  • Burnt Umber
  • Cadmium
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Raw Sienna
  • Mars Yellow
  • Viridian
  • Davey Grey
  • Raw Umber
  • Mars Brown
  • Ultramarine Blues
  • Paynes Gray
  • Lamp Black
  • Ivory Black
  • Zinc white
  • Lead White- Henri notes there might be an issue with ultramarine and lead white

These palettes contain a more extensive array of colors than one would need. Henri indicates within his document that he would develop limited palettes that would be more practical for painting. From the second palette, Henri selects three possible versions:

Zinc W.- Vermilion- Cadmium- Ultramarine

Zinc W.- Vermilion- Cadmium- Viridian-Ultramarine

Lead W.- Indian R./or Mars V.-Venetian R./ or Bt. Sienna- Cadmium/ or Yellow Ochre- Viridian/ or Davey Grey- Black

Henri provides these limited palettes as suggestions for working palettes. Because each palette is permanent, the artist may choose any combination of the selected pigments to build his working palette. One is not obligated to choose those pigments that Henri has selected.

I hope Henri’s experimentation can provide some insight into the pigments you have already chosen to work with on your palette, or if there is a problem of permanency on your palette, you might be able to remedy the issue. Any questions about these palettes? Use the contact page to reach out.

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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