The Triangular Palette of Robert Henri

My copy of Henri’s notes from John Sloan’s visit to Henri’s studio Oct. 4, 1919.

In 1919 John Sloan presented Robert Henri with a palette he had been working on in collaboration with Charles Winter. Robert Henri was a part of this group of artists that got together to explore various color theories and practical palette designs. The color theorist, H.G. Maratta was also involved. On this occasion, Sloan brings Henri something from the group because Henri was very busy at this time teaching and painting and had not gone to the group in several months. Sloan visits Henri’s studio and discusses this new palette design.

The Triangular Palette seems to have derived from a color theorist named Dundeen, possibly from France. Sloan mentions this briefly in “The Gist of Art”. This triangular design had its origin in the work of mathematician and astronomer, Tobias Meyer whose design was published as the “Tobias Mayer’s Mixing Triangle”. This seems to be the basis for Sloan’s Triangular Palette. Sloan gives credit to Charles Winter for bringing this design to the group to study. I also imagine that Maratta had knowledge of this design since he was immersed in European color theory. Maratta also transformed this design to embody his own color theories and it fits perfectly well into his Spectrum Palette design. In fact, Sloan’s presentation includes Maratta’s understanding of the Bi colors and Hues in the schematic design. Henri will also incorporate Maratta’s pigments from the Spectrum Palette in his arrangement of this new palette.

As I am wrapping up my own book on Henri’s color investigations, I have had to go back to many palettes I have used over the years and recreate them so that I can photograph them again because at the time of using them, the book was not on my mind and I have no clean documentation or very good photos to use in my book. The second reason, is that I recently was approached by a collector who owns a Henri, Study of a Hand, and he asked me to investigate it. Hence, began my research into which palette Henri had used for this particular image. After much trial and error, I found that this Triangular Palette comes closest to a practical understanding of this image. It also allows me to date this image to somewhere between 1919-1920.

Henri did not use the Triangular Palette for very long, only about a year. And it was just one of many investigations that Henri was pursuing at this time. Henri will later adapt it to The Aluminum Palette design and drop his use of the Triangular Palette. Sloan, on the other hand, will consistently use this Triangular Palette throughout his career.

I have set the palette to Henri’s chosen colors in the format Sloan had provided in 1919. The lighteners to the right of the YG are the Sloan mixes, the ones to the left are Henri’s revision of the lighteners. I found the ones to the left more useful.

Here are the mixes that Henri used. The OY begins the sequence moving to the right, OY, Y, YG, G, GB, B, BP (bottom right corner), P, PR, R, no RO, O. In the center are the Hues made with earth tones. Direct center is the N (OY+BP) + (B+O). Zinc White. The lighter colors at the top act as the lighteners that substitute the pure white. There are several here because Henri had changed the lighteners several times as he was not happy with them. Henri found the palette too green. I found the palette too red.

Here is the palette after I have used it for one of my own images. Warm mixes to the left off-set by cooler neutrals to the right.

Henri compensated for this too green effect by having the Y hue dominate the palette, O + YG= Y hue (upper left corner mix). And into this Y hue he built up the YG lights balanced by P (lightener at the bottom), plus some GB lightener (Viridian + white, right second down). In regard to the earth tones, Henri used Mars violet (just above the P) to intensify the purples in the lights and also to create a neutral with the G (top right).

What I found most intriguing about the palette was that the balance between the complements was perfect. They perfectly neutralized one another. Although, they themselves were kind of unusual. Take the B. The B was made by mixing cobalt blue with the G [Azo lemon + raw sienna + touch of viridian(this is my yellow) added to cobalt blue + B hue] + cobalt blue. It made a blue that was decidedly greenish. But when mixed with the orange, it made a wonderfully cool neutral gray. Whereas, the BP + OY, made a warm neutral gray that I really liked. Both neutrals were extremely useful.

If we look at the center of the palette, Henri chooses some standard earth tones that take the high intensity color and carry it to the neutral center. Mars violet is above the P, Indian red along the red line, light red along the O line, raw sienna along the OY line, raw umber along the YG line, R+G along the G line, and B hue (Maratta) along the B line, BP + OY along the BP line. These hues were used to lower the intensity of the color along the line traveling to the neutral center which then corresponds to its complement on the other side of the palette [This is called a scale by the group].

Henri’s Color Mixes for this 1919 palette:

Adapted by Judith Reeve

  • OY- cadmium yellow + raw sienna + zinc white
  • Y- azo yellow lemon + raw sienna + touch of viridian
  • YG- same as above + (cobalt blue + B hue)
  • G- Same as above+ more [cobalt+ B hue (more B hue than above)]
  • GB- viridian + zinc white
  • B- (cobalt + B hue) + G above
  • BP- cobalt + Mars violet
  • P- above + zinc white
  • PR- R + BP
  • R- PR 264 (permanent madder red) + Indian red + touch of cadmium red(Henri uses something called spectrum red)
  • O- light red + alizarin + zinc white

The design of this palette, the way it is laid out, was easy to use and pretty intuitive to mix one’s color choices. The only thing I found difficult was the quantity of colors. I found I did not use all the earth tones in the process of mixing. I did not use raw sienna, light red or Indian red (some but not too much). I did not use all the lighteners. I used the Y lightener, the G (viridian) lightener, the P lightener in two values [the one at the bottom and the one at the top left (P + zinc)]. I did not use the PR, at least in this image as it seemed repetitive. I noticed in Henri’s archive that he would also not use every color available for each image. He too was selective. Later, Sloan and Henri would mix the Bi colors from the adjacent colors rather than adding the earth tones to the higher intensity mix. This just points out that this palette can be manipulated in may ways to suit the needs of each image and one can easily shape it to one’s own intentions.

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 Triangular Palette of Robert Henri”

  1. Thank you for your response. If I may, can I ask a follow-on question?

    What tube colors do you think Henri, et al, (or you) when working with a major/minor chord or a 3-on-one palette?

    Specifically, would they start with the three tube primaries and mix secondaries and tertiaries.

    Or would they start with three tube secondaries and mix the primary hues and tertiaries and Bi’s.

    While I realize the combinations and permutations are endless, I assume there was some sort of rationale that would guide them in their choices.

    Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    1. Henri, when working with chords, initially began with Maratta’s tubed colors. Later, Henri would mix his colors, including the primaries, from commercial tubed colors as well as Maratta colors. I mix my R-Y-B for specific palettes or even specific paintings. I leave them as intense as I choose depending on what palette and what kind of painting I am working on. I do not use the same palette to paint an interior figure and an outdoor landscape. I modify the colors of the primaries to suit flesh tones or the landscape. Henri always created a hierarchy of intensity between the primaries or the chords regardless of what he painted. Personally, I would experiment by mixing on the palette to see which primaries at what intensity will work for your image. Henri recommends this in the Art Spirit. It is these types of experiments that lead to breakthroughs.

  2. Thank you for these insights and I will try them.

    But in general, any secondary and tertiary color that I would normally mix is less intense than a corresponding tube color (i.e. orange). The three colors between red and yellow are easier to find, but the six between yellow and red are even more difficult to mix and still have any intensity.

    Are there intense tube colors that you would recommend for YG, G, GB, BP, P, and PR?

    I ask because there are times when I want to have a chord when one of these is the intense color. Part of the problem seems to be the darker color, the less intense it appears.

    1. If you would like the tertiary colors more intense, I would go back to the top line of the Full Spectrum Palette and intensify the secondaries, O,G,P and then mix out the tertiary colors. So you could drop in an O of cadmium lemon yellow + Cad. red [even though this is a mix, it is pretty intense). The G, I will add viridian. The purple, there are many things you could do. I will add Mars Violet to Ultramarine[Henri did this too]. Or you could use a permanent Alizarin crimson or PR 264[Permanent Madder] with a touch of blue. So pump up the secondary colors and go from there.

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