The Power of The Neutral

neutralMuch has been written about color through the centuries and especially in the twentieth century there seems to be a particular interest in color and color relationships. We seem to be searching for something to signify on a symbolic level what our work is about and what we find most interesting.  In the past, painting did not primarily rely on color as a language in itself, although one must say, their color had its own harmony and was beautiful.  These paintings were created with a very limited selection of colors that achieved their luminosity through the juxtaposition of neutrals and pure color.  By neutral, I mean a color composed by combining the compliments – i.e. red and green; blue and orange or violet and yellow. This neutral, which approached a grey or brown provided  a color of transition between passages from light to shadow.

In painting, this area of transition between the light and the shadow, especially in the flesh, is the most illusive. It is always a color that is mysterious and indefinite. If it is too colorful or too dull, the form will not turn. It needs to be precisely what it should be. And the artist needs to find what that is.

The old masters used the neutral in such indescribable passages- the neutral taking on the compliment of the color it is in sympathy with. This creates a transference of color and intensity. What is by itself a grey or brown, becomes a subdued green next to a red. Rubens has a wonderful blue in the area of transition between the half tones and the shadow edge. It appears in all of his figures.  It is less blue than you would think.  It is a cool neutral.

Robert Henri gives the neutral a significant place within his palettes of triads. The neutral becomes the unifying element. But his neutral comes not from the direct compliments but from the combining of the triadic primaries in the palette. If my triad is RO,Y,B, my neutral would be achieved by combining these three. Because it is not a perfect selection of primaries, the neutral takes on its own particular aspect specific to this palette. It becomes that subtle color that binds the image together. Henri believed that the combining of near compliments produced a more powerful effect than direct compliments. I have found this to be very effective. The neutral floats and shifts seamlessly between the colors of the triad.  This simplicity allows one to find the necessary color vibration more easily.  The effect binds the image together adding unity and harmony to the whole.

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.

2 thoughts on “The Power of The Neutral”

  1. Very interesting and so well said. Your color in your paintings is always so beautiful and harmonious. I am very much looking forward to your workshop. I am enjoying reading your blogs very much. Thanks for posting them.

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