Robert Henri’s Interest in the Semi-neutrals

When one thinks about the paintings of Robert Henri, one thinks of the vibrancy of his color palette. But Henri’s method was multi-layered. What Henri sought in his images was a balance between high-intensity colors and what he called “grave” colors. Henri felt that the grave colors actually gave the feeling of mystery and “aliveness” to the painting, not the more intense colors which appear relatively flat in their brightness. Henri consistently experimented with these semi-neutrals in the form of Bi colors and Hues. These semi-neutrals act as a foil to the more intense colors revealing their inherent richness through juxtaposition.

When I paint from life, which is my typical way of working, I sometimes wish to find a specific semi-neutral color that is not made by combining a pair of complements. These semi-neutrals can be arranged to mirror the full-intensity colors along the spectrum. What I am looking for, in this case, is a semi-neutral, what Henri called the Bi color, that would fall within the area of a tertiary. The tertiaries along the spectrum are OY-YG-GB-BV-VR-RO. So, I am looking for a tertiary color that is semi-neutralized.

Painting from life, the artist uses many combinations of tertiary mixes. What I have found is that tertiaries that are semi-neutralized are inevitable in my paintings. But instead of feeling my way to these neutralized tertiaries, I have mapped out my understanding of these combinations so I can call them up when I need them without a flurry of indecision or hesitation. Since I am not mixing the high-intensity color first and then lowering its intensity with a neutral or complement, I need to know what combinations of colors along the 12 intervals of the full spectrum will immediately give me my semi-neutralized tertiary.

Arthur Pope, who studied with Denman Ross at Harvard University, studied semi-neutrals and their spectrum relationship. Pope arranges a series of spectrum colors placed against their complement. Each color follows its place along the full spectrum. In this example, Pope begins with V set against its complement, Y . When mixed, V and Y form a neutral(N). Pope then indicates an alternative to this type of mixing by shifting to the near-complement to mix a semi-neutral (center column in small script). This type of diagonal mixing to produce a semi-neutral was Denman Ross’ basic mixing method for most of his set-palettes.

Mixing the near-complement, in this case, is mixing 2 colors at an interval of the 5th. An example: VR is mixed with Y to create a RO semi-neutral color. Mixing the complements to create a total neutral is mixing at an interval of the 6th. Observe how the semi-neutral mixes follow the spectrum by looking at the center column (in small script). Each mixture of a near-complement produces a semi-neutral (primary, secondary or tertiary mix). In the left arrangement, the semi-neutrals descend from a G-YG-Y-OY-O-RO to black. In the right arrangement, the semi-neutrals descend from a R-VR-V-BV-B-GB to black. This is Pope’s Type B Palette (with warm colors at full intensity). The 2 columns, right, and left, display the mix for one near-complement and then the other, available for each color. An example: OY + B (left); OY + V (right). Both B and V are near-complements to OY.

Both Robert Henri and H.G. Maratta understood this principle. Henri applied it in some of his Late Palettes based on the chromatic circle B-O which follows Pope’s diagonal mixing. One thing unique to Maratta, though, was his understanding of intervals between colors. Ross often used regular intervals for each of his numbered palettes (especially before meeting with H.G. Maratta). But Maratta often chose unequal intervals such as his Chord palette designs based on the interval combinations of 3-4-5. It is this 4th interval that I wish to examine here.

An interval of the 4th will produce a series of semi-neutrals if I begin with a tertiary as my root note. If I mix two tertiaries at 4 intervals apart, I will mix a semi-neutral. Here is a chart I have designed to organize my thoughts about mixing the semi-neutrals. Note that the tertiaries appear in a sequence that mirrors their progression along the spectrum. I have repeated the tertiaries in 3 columns to cover all combinations. You will see that each triad is repeated in a different order, but I have kept both as a way to understand the color movement along the spectrum.

I have also grouped them into three’s horizontally. If I mix each horizontal triad of tertiaries, I can produce a complete neutral. An example: The top line is made up of VR-OY-GB. If I examine these colors, I have the three primaries and the three secondaries contained within these colors. This means that when all three colors are mixed, I will produce a complete neutral. This is not a chord but a different kind of color arrangement.

Note also that to create these semi-neutral tertiaries mixes, I am mixing at the 4th interval. If I look at each line in this chart, I find that the semi-neutral obtained from the mixed combinations is the missing tertiary between the two tertiary notes. An Example: VR + OY= RO semi-neutral. The RO naturally appears between the VR tertiary and the OY tertiary. The color skipped is the semi-neutral produced by mixing the VR and the OY. This makes this chart easy to remember.

Robert Henri understood that semi-neutrals could be produced using multiple color combinations. Even within the Chord palettes, sometimes Henri would get a semi-neutral of a RO Bi one way and on the next painting produce a RO Bi with a different set of mixes. A semi-neutral tertiary occurs in some of the chords if the 4th interval begins on a tertiary color. If it begins on a secondary, you will produce one of the Hues. For example, if I take O as my root note and count 4 intervals, I will come to G. O + G = Y Hue.

This chart is my invention, but Henri and Maratta understood its structure. I use this chart, especially when landscape painting, to help me identify which tertiary combinations will give me the semi-neutral that I observe in front of me. These color combinations are optically more interesting than a semi-neutral created from a pair of complements, especially if you allow the tertiaries to be only partially mixed.

On October 16, 2021, I presented at the Robert Henri Museum in Cozad, Nebraska. The conference included the Robert Henri family presenting on managing Henri’s legacy and estate and Valerie Ann Leeds, the foremost art historian on Robert Henri, who presented on Henri’s public persona and the artistic choices that led to his fame. I invite you to watch a video of my presentation The Color Investigations of Robert Henri.

The Life and Art of Tom Thomson

Tom Thomson, “Thunderhead”, 1912-1913, 8.5″x 10.5″.

“He said I had something that the other artists didn’t have- that I had a sense of the wilderness and knew what could be expressed through art. I laughed and said I could pick the trees out and catch fish better than any artist. But my art was from my knowledge of the country, not from being a superior artist.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, May 20, 1917: Confessions at Tea Lake Dam.

Recently, I have been reading the late journal of the Canadian landscape painter, Tom Thomson. He is best know for his association with the Group of Seven who gave rise to an epic landscape style focused on the Canadian North, particularly around Algonquin Park in the 1910’s. Tom Thomson is the most well know of the group although, he never officially joined. Thomson was a non-conformist and joining any group did not sit well with him. The journal entries comprise of Thomson’s last year of painting in Algonquin Park beginning in March 1917. Thomson will die in a canoe accident at the end of July under suspicious circumstances. Many books on Thomson are focused on this drama.

But what I really found inspiring about Thomson was his love of nature and his attempts to place man within that vastness. His practice was to paint every day outside regardless of the weather. One can see from his images, that immediacy and deep engagement in the moment of painting. He is cold and wet, hot and eaten by bugs, blown around by the wind, joyful with the coming of spring, wandering around at night to see the Northern Lights, and exhausted from a long hike painting in deep snow. He is present and meditative seeking an experience of pure isolation- not spurning human company but searching instead, for a space in which he can engage with himself and with nature.

Thomson is very much like the Thoreau of the Canadian North. He rarely seeks personal attention and seems not to care much about what the art world thinks of him. He lets the artist’s ego go and chooses instead to live the full life regardless of his poverty. I feel this quote from Thoreau’s Walden is appropriate,

“The lesson he taught himself (Thoreau), and which he tried to teach others, was summed up in one word “simplify”. That meant simplify the outward circumstances of your life, simplify your needs and your ambitions; learn to delight in the simple pleasures which the world of Nature affords. It meant also, scorn public opinion, refuse to accept the common definitions of success, refuse to be moved by the judgement of others.”

Joseph Wood Krutch introduction to “Walden and other Writings by Henry David Thoreau”.

Thomson’s experience is very much like my own experience when I plein air paint. On-site, I am immersed in my subject and in my own thoughts and reveries. And the give and take between these two poles allow the image to emerge as a natural manifestation of the experience. Nature is generative and one’s deeply sought experience in that space allows the artist himself to be reborn and renewed. Thomson speaks of his need to paint, his need to get back to himself once again that could only happen through the very act of painting. Painting is recalling oneself back to center, back to an inward stasis that promotes creativity and gives the imagination space to manifest itself. If one is not true to oneself and one’s experience, the artistic spirit cannot thrive.

Tom Thomson, “Approaching Snowstorm”, 1916.

“In the evening, after dinner, I made a sketch of the sky in the failing light. The dark clouds from the cold front were moving in, smothering the sunlight from the early evening. There is a sense of inevitability in the scene I painted. Inevitability about what, I don’t know.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, May 12, 1917: The Trainors Arrive.

Thomson painted primarily, what I would call, pochades (Thomson’s are painted on birch panels and orange crate pine boards). Small, quick, spontaneous paintings done in one go. Most are around 8″x 10″or 6″x 8″. Some will mature to large gallery paintings produced later in Thomson’s studio in Toronto (under 24 canvases). But most will remain small under 14″x 16″. The journal entries of 1917 are all of the smaller sizes. Thomson is best known for his large image “The Jack Pine”, but I find his pochades focused on the sky the most compelling. The way Thomson makes the clouds lift up and press down from above are strong and beautiful, producing an incredible feeling of immensity and grandeur. It has caused me to reconsider the largeness of my skies. I admire the intensity of the color and the deepness of the tones in the clouds. The contrast adds dramatic effect and creates a greater range of values than I typically give myself. He also balances the color temperature, alternating between cool and warm passages that enliven the surface.

Tom Thomson, “Northern Lights”, 1916.

So what am I doing? I’m sketching. I’m drawing. I’m painting. I find it distressing that we’re fighting the very ones I drew inspiration from. The German Expressionists, their insistence on bold strong colour and harsh depictions. The North lends itself to these techniques, and it was me who introduced the rest to what was here…It’s good to have a plan, but sometimes it is better to live day by day and catch the moment when it’s appropriate.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, April 19, 1917: Thinking of Leaving

Thomson’s compositions I find so true to experience. There is, as he said, an ‘inevitability’ in his compositions. They feel unreconstructed, without pretense. Just as if I, myself, had walked into the scene- the vault of the sky, the laying in of the trees, the sharpness of the light generate a truth of experience in which my sight becomes clear, becomes heightened to perceiving the reality that lies before me. This is the calling of art, to brush away the scales from our eyes allowing one to see anew and therefore, feel more intensely than we have ever felt before.

“There are four seasons in the world, but there are only two in my mind- painting and no-painting.”

Tom Thomson, Journal entry, March 18, 1917: Last Canvas on the Easel.