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. Reubens 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.

A Theory of Triads

dsc04354One of the extraordinary things about the color theory of Robert Henri is its simplicity. He believed much could be said with very little. But that limited sense does not  mean meager by any regard. “Employ such colors as produce immensity in a small space. Do not be interested in light for light’s sake or in color for color’s sake, but in each as a medium for expression.”( Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p.58) In most cases, Henri used a simple triad of color based on the spectrum band- the spectrum band referring to the order of light as it appears to the eye- it can be seen in a rainbow or a prism where the light is clearly divided in bands of color, i.e. PR- R-RO-O-OY-Y-YG-G-GB-B-BP-P. Once this spectrum palette is developed, one can then select the colors necessary for one’s composition, being clear to only use what is necessary. With much use, one discovers how little color is necessary to produce the effect of brilliance in a painting. In most cases, three colors seems enough and if another accent is needed it is fairly easy to draw down another color  from the original spectrum palette.

As I said, much can be expressed with very little. As an instructor, I find that my students are hampered by the use of too many colors. They have taken many classes and have adopted a new color with every new instructor. When I was a student, I found this to be the case, not knowing the origin or base on which to make color decisions. It was liberating to find Henri and to start at the beginning, where every student should commence the study of color.

Why a triad? Why three colors only? Why should one limit oneself to what is possible? What makes a triad of color successful is it allows each color to speak clearly and have a specific resonance with its partners.  Color is a compositional choice.  One is choosing a specific arrangement of color , not only to represent what is before one, but also to emphasize a certain feeling or emotional content. Clarity of choice allows for greater harmony, resonance and vibration.

Another dimension to this triad has to do with intensity. When one looks at the spectrum palette that we have developed here, we can see that many of the colors have similar intensities. “…there is a power in the palette which is composed of pure and grave colors that makes it wonderfully practical and which presents possibilities unique to itself.” (Ibid, p.64) Henri very often varied the intensities within this triad. He allowed one or possibly two colors to be at their full intensity. If I say my triad is R-OY-B, one could have R in its full intensity and allow the remaining colors to be of a lower intensity so that there is a hierarchy of color. This built in hierarchy allows one to ochestrate the drama in a piece. It is the grave colors built within the triad and the nuetral that bring life to the painting and the more intense colors acting as their accent. In a symphony it is the orchestra that holds the composition together and the solo violin, whose notes carry us to another place, to add direction and dimension. One needs both juxtaposed against one another to bring a “living” element to the image.

The Supremacy of the Moment


Detail of 'Bridghid at One'

As a painter, I spend a considerable amount of time experimenting in order to build my experience in paint. I also believe that all great work comes from living in the “moment”. But  I find that spontaneity arises from a combination of experience and thorough preparation. Preparation at first appears to be antithetical to spontaneity. But being prepared for that moment when your subject is before you allows the mind and spirit to be freed up. One is not overly preoccupied with materials. One is liberated to be sensitive to the subject- seeking to capture something more elusive, something more than mere objective reality.

Design seeks harmony and resonance between the many elements in an image. Robert Henri, known for his Hals like spontaneity, spent a lifetime reflecting on design in color and composition. His archive at the Yale Beinecke Library reflects the intensity with which he pursued it.  He states in The Art Spirit, “It is a question of seeing significances and apprehending the special forms and colors which will serve as building materials. A good picture is a well built structure.”(p.50) In regards to composition, Henri used several methods throughout his life- mainly rebatement but also the golden section and something called the whirling square developed by Jay Hambridge.

Good design is the framework on which a forceful image can be built. But Henri never allowed it to be evident. Design was always subservient to the moment of engagement. Design was there to support experience. The two should flow together like a river, moving in the same direction and having the same source and final destination. George Bellows, Henri’s star pupil, allowed design to take control of his late work and because of this many of his late images of figures appear rigid, forcing them to conform to a preconceived design. The interplay between design and experience is thwarted. ” It is not enough to have thought great things before doing the work. The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs…”(ibid,p.16)

I can only categorize Henri’s color theory as surprising. Looking at the colors in the archive objectively, they are beautiful. And the surprise is that these beautiful color combinations are observable in reality- which I have found through my own experimentation. There is a heightened “intensity” in them. By intensity, I do not necessarily mean the colors are intense in chroma but that there is a wonderful balance between pure color and moody and mysterious darks. But even in regard to color, Henri allows the ” living moment” to guide the work. The “living moment”is not necessarily bound within the time frame when the subject is in the presence of the artist. “The most vital things in the look of a face or of a landscape endure only for a moment. Work should be done from memory. The memory of that vital movement. During that moment there is a correlation of the factors of that look…The special order has to be retained in memory- that special look and order which was its expression. Memory must hold it.” (ibid,p.27) Although design is of critical importance to all great images, the “essential” moment of your personal engagement with the world takes priority.

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