The Complexity of Color

Image of color conbination used in the painting by Robert Henri discussed in post
Image of color chord used in the painting by Robert Henri discussed in post

I recently attended an exhibition at the New Britain Museum of  American Art in Ct. The show was called The Eight and American Modernism. There were several paintings by Robert Henri from the Milwaukee Museum of Art that I have only seen in reproductions. How refreshing to view them up close. There was one painting from a private collector that I had never seen before but had read some of Henri’s color notes regarding it in his archive. This painting, The Dancer of Delhi (Betalo Rubino), was truly magnificent. It contained in a summary form all that Henri was about and much of what he strived for.

In this piece Henri uses the model as a vehicle to explore  the complex color relationships in a chord with multiple intensities for each color in the triad. Dancer of Delhi was built on the chord of R-YG-BP with the subordinate triad as RO bi, GB bi, PR c. Each color appears in several intensities- the R approaches a pure state in the lips and adornments and appears in a lower intensity in the large drape on which the model is reclining; it is present in the flesh, neutralized by white and by the YG. The flesh tone was achieved through the main chord of primarily the YG and the BP with touches of the R in the warmer passages; the shadow area containing RO bi with warm accents of PR c and the cast shadows overlaid with the BP. The BP and the GB bi appear in different intensities throughout- combined in the foreground and side by side in the background and neutralized with white in the top of the model. And touches of pure color appear in the jewelry and beads (very like Frans Hals). It was amazing to see so much color in a piece yet still appear very realistic- realism with the inner intensity of the artist very much present.

What I found most striking about the piece other than its marvelous and sensuous color is the amazing simplicity inherent in it. The figure is simply painted and the flesh tones varying only in temperature to achieve form- the value (in regards to black and white) having very little variation. Color temperature being the primary means to achieve the modeling. This is one of Henri’s insights-” The effect of brilliancy is to be obtained principally from the oppositions of cool colors with warm colors, and the opposition of grave colors with bright colors… Form can be modeled in black and white, but there are infinitely greater possibilities in modeling through the warmth and coolness of color.” ( Henri, The Art Spirit, p.57 and p.62)

(If you end up viewing the painting on-line or in the catalogue reproduction, it is very dark and too warm with too much contrast- although it is imperfect it will at least give one an idea of the painting.)

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.

5 thoughts on “The Complexity of Color”

  1. Judith, I confess I have no (as in zilch, nada. niete, none) knowledge of color theory. However, your explanations make it seem easy. I do not understand how he achieves his effects; however, when I look at a Henri painting my first impression is that he is unafraid to show his bond with those he paints. When they are hesitent his paint supports them, when they are happy he amplifies their joy, when they are beautiful he reaches out to touch their skin. Henri paintings are there and they are not there. The spirit is there but the details of life are just suggested.

    I’ve always read “the Art Spirit” for the generosity of his character which permeates every word in the book. On occasion I re-read it to feast upon his joie de vivre. Some where in TAS he says (and I am paraphrasing) that the artist paints a picture not necessarily to make a picture but to recapture a heightened sence of existence in its making. All that you have written seems to validate that observation.

    Furthermore, I agree with your assertion that thorough preparation and experience are the basis for art (or any action realy). I guess with thorough preparation you can forget all that one has laboriously learned in order to be in the moment.

    1. Ric, There is so much to absorb in The Art Spirit. What sometimes seems like an off hand comment is actually some advice. It appears less hidden to my eyes because I have seen the things that he had struggled with in his notebooks. And the Art Spirit is a constant reminder to me of what I have seen. He also, was not one to tell someone where they should take something. He desired that each artist would find his own way and he did not wish to be a hindrance- that they might see something that he had over looked or been unaware of. So keep delving into the Art Spirit, it is richer in practical advice than would first appear. Judith

  2. Thanks Judith, it was fascinating to read your description of how the color chord was used in The Dancer of Delhi while I looked at the painting in the catalogue. It was very helpful to me in understanding how a chord is used in a painting. Your paintings positively vibrate with color and a vivid sense of light that sometimes seems truer than the subject you are painting! It is amazing.
    Your blogs make what seemed to me a very complex color theory much more easy to understand. After years of painting with standard pallets and being either dissatisfied or utterly confounded with the color results I am going to take my first baby steps with a triad thanks to all your information , inspiration and wonderful example. I am looking forward to it and will keep you posted.

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