Limitation as a Creative Tool

Considering the often overlooked value of limitation and the ways it can lead to exceptional results in the practice of painting.


Limitation is a term that, in most cases, one finds unacceptable. Limitation inhibits and contracts my freedom, to proceed as I want to. Limitation is presented as a negative. Why limit myself when I could use all the resources available to me? But it is in limitation that true inventiveness is released. There is a contained power in limitation. It can be compared to a volcano in which the lava has yet to erupt. There is force and pressure built-up from within. Limitation is that contained energy. Because it presents us with restrictions, limitation stimulates one to use one’s knowledge and resources to capacity. It leads to its opposite (or inversion), which is an ‘expansion’ of one’s own personal vision or new understanding of the material at hand. In other words, it creates a space for the creative spirit to act.

Henri understood that limitation is key to mastery of color. And he took this observation from previous masters, especially Frans Hals.

In regards to color and paint, a simple limitation would be a triad of the primary colors, red, yellow and blue. With such a palette, one would limit the mixing of colors to those that can be obtained by the combination of the primaries only. Therefore, the variety of oranges would be obtained by the mixture of red and yellow. When we begin to look at the palettes of Robert Henri, one can see that they are built on this idea of limitation. Henri understood that limitation is key to mastery of color. And he took this observation from previous masters, especially Frans Hals. If one could master a simple palette, then one could proceed to more and more complex palettes with greater virtuosity. This relates to the modern idea of ‘chunking’. One can master rather complex arrangements of figures or ideas by grouping them into coherent ’chunks’ that can more easily reside in the memory as well as form cognitive associations. This chunking makes recall easier. Grouping things in this way also increases one’s ability to absorb more and more complex figures.

If one can master a simple palette, then one has the ability to master more complex color relationships that come with an expanded palette. Through this method, one can develop an intuitive feeling for the manifold associations of color within the spectrum as well as color associations linked to the subject within the image. This limitation is an opportunity to test the subtlety of one’s color sensitivity.

Early on in my color studies, I was greatly impressed by Frans Hals’ color. It was harmonious and simple with beautiful flesh tones- from the ruddy complexion of the brewmeister to the clarity and purity of the merchants’ wife. What I found was that Hals relied on the power of a limited palette. It was limited in color choices as well as intensity. For color he used an intense red like cadmium red vermilion, a subdued yellow like raw sienna, and a neutral blue of ivory black. This is a simple triad of the primaries. But he also formed a hierarchy of intensity. You would think since he limited his palette he would desire to have all three primaries at full intensity, but rather he limits himself in this way also. And this limitation fulfills the circumstances in which he painted- portraits in a studio in the north of Europe.

But what surprised me about this palette was its incredible variety while maintaining an innate harmony. I was impressed how the subdued ivory black appeared quite blue in this setting. It was perfect for flesh tones, to turn the edges with a cool neutral. I also found that the green from ivory black and raw sienna, which formed many of Hals’ backgrounds, was an amazing base for the shadow color which then could be warmed with reflected light in the form of cadmium red and raw sienna. I also found the purples very subtle from a nice cool with the addition of white to a soft warm with the addition of more red. Another aspect that was remarkable was the innate value of this set palette. The ivory black is really as dark as one can go in paint. With the addition of white on the palette, this is the top range in the lights. The red and the raw sienna fall somewhere in the middle value range. Hals was certainly assisted in this regard  because of the costumes of the day being mainly black with stiff white collars. His images contain this bracket of value extremes in which the color- reds, greens, yellows and violets play against this value. And because of this readily available contrast, the eye can see more clearly the range of colors. This black and white foil allows my eye to see the richness of color available by comparison to these neutrals.

What I learned from such limitation is the importance of the color, of course, but also the critical aspect of value and color intensity in the selection of a palette. This was also Henri’s discovery. As he developed as a colorist, he took into account these limitations of value, intensity and chroma. He sought various kinds of limitation to create a crucible of creativity and imaginative instinct. He experimented relentlessly. Some palettes contain an infinite variety while others are even more limited in range than Hals. He followed rules of set palettes but he also broke the rules. He broke them because he had an understanding of color’s power to affect an emotional response in the viewer. Color was science, which every artist should be schooled in, but color is also the creative tool of the artist to affect a response of mind and heart. Limitation became, for Henri, the very means to creativity, the art 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.

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