Neutrals in the Practice of Henri and Delacroix

An exploration of the masterful use of neutral colors to create vitality in the works of Robert Henri and Eugène Delacroix.

Robert Henri, "Irish Boy in Blue Denim"
Robert Henri, “Irish Boy in Blue Denim”

Both Robert Henri and Eugène Delacroix were fascinated by the power of grey or neutral tones to add a dynamic visual component within a painting. Traditionally, a neutral is a color that appears grey or brown and is composed, in most cases, of a combination of complements or a triad of the primaries. It can be observed in the figures of Rubens, in the flesh tones, as the neutral tone in the transitional passages between the half-tones and the shadow edge. This neutral tone, though non-specific in color, is what is needed in those passages that are indefinite and mysterious. This neutral takes on the complementary color of those tones it is near, thus creating a visual inter-play of colors that are optical and therefore more dynamic. Optical changes in color are effective primarily because the mixing of the pigments takes place in the mind of the observer. It fluctuates, vibrates and creates vitality on the surface of the canvas that cannot be achieved in any other way.

These neutral tones set against stronger colors create a felt visual contrast of complements as well as a distinct contrast of value. Both the optical complement and higher contrast create a vital energy within the composition. Delacroix takes his cue from nature,

“During this same walk…I noticed some extraordinary effects. It was sunset; the chrome and lake tones were most brilliant on the side where it was light and the shadows were extraordinarily blue and cold. And in the same way, the shadows thrown by the trees, which were all yellow and directly lit by the suns rays, stood out against part of the grey clouds which were verging on blue. It would seem that the warmer the lighter tones, the more nature exaggerates the contrasting grey…What made this effect appear so vivid in the landscape was precisely this law of contrast.” (Eugene Delacroix, Journal, p.145) 

Henri reflects,

“…there is a power in a palette which is composed of both pure and grave colors (neutrals/semi-neutrals)…In paintings made with such a palette… we find an astounding result. It is the grave colors, which were so dull on the palette that become the living colors in the picture. The brilliant colors are their foil. The brilliant colors remain more in their actual character of bright paint, are rather static, and it is the grave colors, affected by juxtaposition, which undergo the transformation that warrants my use of the word ‘living’.” (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p.64)

Henri takes this idea, which has its origin in simultaneous contrast, and applies it to his work in such a way as to create a feeling of the constant movement of color within the image. “They (grave colors) seem to move- rise and fall in their intensity, are in perpetual motion- at least, so effect the eye. They are not fixed. They are indefinable and mysterious.”

Both artists engaged in constant experimentation with this interaction between the neutrals and the more brilliant hues. As related by Alexander Dumas in his Lecture on Delacroix, 1864,

“Delacroix told me that it was while painting “Marino Faliero” he had found his color theory. He needed for his decapitated doge and senators, golden coats, and had unnecessarily used the brightest yellow: its coats yet, remained dull. He resolved to go to the Louvre to study the Rubens… He then instructed his chambermaid…to fetch a cab. Jenny came… to announce that the gig was at the door. Delacroix, always short on time, ran to the vehicle requested. Before the gig, with fierce yellow, he stopped short. It was yellow like this he needed! In the position where the car was placed there were shadows that made it stand out. But these shadows were purple. No need to go to the Louvre; Delacroix returned, he held to his purpose.” (Alexander Dumas, Talks on Delacroix, 1864).

Delacroix subsequently applied this idea of using a grey to surround and therefore, enhance and magnify the intensity of the brighter colors in a composition. Henri follows suit, “In experimentation I have seen an arrangement of a bright color and a very mud-like neutral pigment present the phenomenon of a transference of brilliancy- the neutral presenting for a moment a sizzling complementary brilliance far overpowering the ‘pure color’ with which it was associated.”(AS, p.65)

Henri realizes the potential that the neutral presents and develops this idea further, taking Delacroix’s discoveries in a new direction. Henri found that by allowing the neutral to maintain the character of the color it represents, one could heighten the optical effects of the neutral when it is juxtaposed against a high intensity color. What do I mean by this? Henri created neutrals that no longer depended on the complements or a triad of primaries. He chose, instead, to mix the secondaries together to achieve a low intensity combination of a primary. An example: By mixing green+violet, one could get a low intensity blue that borders on neutrality yet maintains its blueness. (See Bellows and the Pervading Neutral) If one chose to place this neutralized blue near an orange in the composition, it would create a heightened feeling in the orange as well as visually turning the blueish neutral into the perfect complement in regards to color and tone. Chevreul discovered that this was best achieved by these colors being near one another but not touching. This placement allowed the neutral to become the necessary complement to the high chroma color. Chevreul also recommends that the neutral cover a greater surface area on the canvas, leaving the high intensity color area smaller. Also, in regards to value, the neutral tends to be more effective if it is darker in value than the more intense pigment. So the amount of neutrality, the surface area covered by each color and the value contribute to the optical dynamic of movement and vigor in a composition.

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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