The Third Line

Robert Henri's Intensity Palette by Judith Reeve. This version is built upon the chord OY-B-VR and includes a third line of related neutrals.
The Chord OY-B-VR. Line two are the Bi colors and line three are the neutrals.

Over the past year I have been working with Henri’s 50% Intensity Palette. As reviewed in a previous blog, this palette is built with half the palette at full intensity and the other half, which are the complements to these intense colors, reduced to a level 5 intensity. Henri built his palette by creating the most intense colors between RO-G, leaving GB-R reduced. This provides a wonderful inter-play between the complements and the near complements. If we reflect on Chevreul’s Laws, “Complements will appear more vital if the value and the intensity of the complementary pair is not the same.”

Recently, I have minimized this palette design even further, to focus on chords. I begin by drawing the three root notes of the chord from the larger 50% Intensity Palette. At first I thought this might not provide enough color and the image would appear too reduced in intensity. In the chord below, only the OY is at full intensity. But I found that this is not the case. In fact, I chose to expand my chord triad to two more triads of reduced intensity.

Example: If I take a chord triad OY-B-VR, my second line will be built from the pairing of these colors: OY +B, B+VR, VR+OY. Since these mixes contain complements, these mixes will appear as Bi colors and be semi-reduced (B+VR is not neutralized but will appear as a BV of reduced intensity. Both the B and the VR are already reduced by 50%). Next, I took these mixes and again paired them, (OY+B)+(B+VR); (B+VR)+(VR+OY); (VR+OY)+(OY+B) and what one gets are a series of neutrals, a B neutral, a VR neutral and an OY neutral. This occurs because each pairing of mixes has a dominant color that is the same as a color in the root triad, top line, of the chord. If we examine the image above, the second line contains a triad of Bi colors. Although, I expanded the OY+VR area because I found all 3 variations interesting for the image I was painting. And the third line contains just the three neutrals.

These neutrals were very dark and varied in color temperature. But what I found most fascinating about them is that they were most effective used straight in this form without further mixing. They perfectly balanced the bright colors and became, as Henri liked to refer to them as, “Living Colors”. These neutrals establish a dynamic foil to the more intense colors, giving those colors space to breathe and activate the color relationships within the chord.

Maratta had designed this third line early on as part of the Full Spectrum Palette, but Henri initially, rarely premixed this. You only find him later, pre-mixing this line. Henri obviously understood the third line and in fact mixes it in the act of painting. Henri often used these neutrals on the canvas, allowing the colors from line two to only partially mix, creating an optical mix of neutrality rather than achieving a neutral through direct mixing. Both methods were deployed by Henri.

When so many modern colors are bright and intense, it is often overlooked how little color is really necessary to achieve form and create a dynamic relationship between colors on the canvas. As the set palettes of many artists attest, you can go a long way with a limited palette. Harmony is more easily achieved within the confines of limitation. And with harmony comes an inherent strength in the composition. Henri believed that, “Culmination is greater than contrast.”

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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