A Discussion on the Spectrum Palette of Robert Henri

Recently, I received a comment that expressed some of the major confusions that occur when beginning to delve into the color theory of Robert Henri and H.G. Marratta. I decided to use it as a platform to clarify my understanding of the spectrum palette. I have spent the past 14 years experimenting with the spectrum palette and its variations and through my practice have come to understand it intimately. Below is my explanation of particular issues faced when using the Spectrum Palette followed by highlights from the comment I receive.

When I first immersed myself in Henri’s color theory it took a lot of time and patience to unravel its mysteries. The one thing that was most significant about it was that you, your self, create the palette from your chosen colors. It is not about using this color or that color, but creating an inherent harmony with one’s chosen palette ( I am always wary of a painter who says you need to use such and such a palette or colour). You cannot purchase this. There are no commercial paints that fulfill this type of harmony. You, yourself, must create the harmony by the inter-mixtures of your chosen colors-And Henri can take you down that road.

First begin with three primaries. At first, I would recommend choosing a balanced set of primaries that have a shared intensity (the Frans Hals palette manipulates this relationship by using one intense color-red- and two subdued colors- raw sienna and ivory black and we can talk about this at another time). To create a spectrum palette, you need to mix these primaries out to 12 colors that are inter-related as such:


Place your primaries on your palette leaving plenty of space between them. Next mix your secondaries such as G with Y+B (placing this in the middle between your Y and B). Next mix the tertiaries such as YG with Y+GB(placing this between the Y and GB). One should have a visual flow from one colour to the next across the palette. It should feel like the colour spectrum and unified. If it does not, than mix the intervening colours again until it does. This is the simplest way to come to an understanding of the spectrum palette. One can choose primaries that are akin to your work. Lately, because I paint the human figure, I use R- Chinese vermillion (Sennilier); Y- Cobalt Yellow Aurelion;B- French Ultramarine Blue. I have also used other colours depending on my chosen subject. I have used R- Cadmium red medium; Y- yellow ochre+ cadmium lemon yellow; B- cobalt blue. I have also used R- cadmium red medium; Y- raw sienna; B- Ultramarine blue+ ivory black. Any of these combinations will do, it all depends on the effect you wish to get and your subject matter. But choose colours that relate to your own tendencies not mine. As you see, even the primaries of the palette sometimes need to be mixed. Don’t depend on off-the-shelf colours.

Once you mix out the spectrum palette, you will be utterly amazed how much colour is at your disposal and in fact too much colour for any one subject. Henri found this to be the case also. So he desired to limit the palette even further. Here he found that the chords related to him by H.G.Marratta (a colour theorist and paint maker), were more useful. Because they created an even closer relationship within the paint, they were more harmonious. So if you know music you can use a minor or major chord as your primaries keeping the intervals at the proper relationship (use the guide at the top of this page describing the spectrum palette to get the colour at the proper intervals using Red as the C#). So if I use an A major:B- R-OY, I take these as my new primaries and mix them the same way as I did the initial spectrum palette. And what you will notice is that the palette becomes more limited but also has a beautiful intensity that is harmonious and more closely aligns with your subject matter. I almost exclusively use chords in my work, although there are other variations that are effective, I like the chords because they are really balanced and easily convey a particular emotive effect. And if one changes the initial spectrum palette prior to choosing the chord, one can in fact have an infinite number, of say, an A Major chord. So the artist is in charge and is the very creator of the emotive effect within the paint.

As regards the use of black- black, especially ivory black, is a beautiful and rich colour that can create an immensity of depth. I have used it as a substitute for blue, common among the old masters. If you designate black as your blue and do not introduce any other blue into the palette, that black will appear blue and carry a subtle richness into the depths. I have even used it for the flesh tones as you have seen in my blog of Frans Hals and the Simple Palette. The way to test this is to create a spectrum palette from the R-Y-B               ( cadmium red medium, raw sienna, and ivory black- as a side note: only use the very best earth tones such as Old Holland or Williamsburg paints because these have the proper range and saturation of pigment).

As regards black and the Munsell system, I have serious questions about this. In the Munsell system, the artist separates the value from the chroma and then combines them to achieve the proper tone for the subject matter. This gives one an extremely accurate tone. But does this tone remain vital? The harmony achieved in the Munsell system stems from the black/ brown tone being prevalent throughout the painting- existing everywhere and in all tones. This has its advantage because it simplifies the very difficult task of achieving the value, chroma, color temperature by dividing up the tasks. Is this the best way?

My theory about it is that as I have matured over the years, I find this division unnecessary because I have trained my eye to see things as a unity and express them as such. Am I as accurate as those that use this system exclusively? Probably not. But have I achieved a realism that is emotive as well as full of colour? I would have to say yes. So if you are at the beginning of your training, maybe the Munsell system can help solidify your work. When I was a student, I swore by under painting and used it exclusively. Now I find it too dry, too rigid and I yearn for spontaneity and the free stroke. So one learns and one grows always being open to one’s inner voice who is the true guide within us all.


(Highlights from the comment that inspired this post.)

Hi Judith,
Thanks so much, your writing is very helpful. I have a couple of questions regarding the spectrum palette and the one you were talking about in the Frans Hals article.
I started studying colours after reading “Blue and yellow don’t make green- by Michael Wilcox”. His system of using primaries, makes some sense to me. I noticed in the writing of John Sloan this same spectrum palette that you mention and also something about triads and chords. I haven’t sat down and read his book yet, but immediately I was struck by the relation to colours and musical intervals (both have 12). I definitely saw some possibility of major/minor chords in colour. I set up a simple still life with certain colours and by dropping one colour an interval… the feeling was exactly like strumming a major chord and then dropping it into a minor on the guitar. I have been looking at three ideas… the Michael Wilcox split primary system, the spectrum palette you have mentioned and also some ideas from Frank Faragasso via Frank Reilly, which use Munsell neutral greys to bring colours down in tone(I must say that I’m slightly adverse to using black/umber greys to neutralize colours… It feels a little muddy and looses the richness and possibilities of using the compliment.)

The split primary system seems full of possibilities, but although he does advocate the use of yellow ochre, raw sienna and burnt sienna… I feel that there must be more to be got out of some of the more traditional colours used in the past like earth colours and colours like ivory black. What’s more… using these modern bright colours is very expensive… they can fade and sometimes look a bit acidic. The actual earth pigments have a different feel.
I’m interested about what you wrote in this article about using cadmium red medium, Raw sienna deep and ivory black… is it really possible just by using these three colours to produce a lot of the lighter skin tones I see in Franz Hals paintings? Somehow I have had a fear of using black built into me.. that it kills colours. I get that it is on the blue side, but mixed with cad red medium and a deep raw sienna can you really achieve enough purity of colour in the lights? Especially the skin tones? When you say that you used the secondaries O-G-P… did you just mix the fore mentioned paints? If this is all true, then how important is paint quality when using these particular colours?

Open Memory and Books

I am always on the look out for old books. Most times they play a part in my own work- color theory, design, aesthetics, sometimes technique- a new look at what appears to be familiar. I know one can practically buy any book online if one needs too. But it isn’t quite the same as finding a book hidden on a shelf that you forgot you wanted to find- a distant memory that springs forward with an acknowledgement or assent calling one to recognize with an inherent familiarity “this” book. Or possibly even finding one that surprises you. I often put myself into the hands of fate and  allow myself to be open to what wishes to present itself to me. Sometimes one has to allow what is out there to find you at the right time and at the right moment. It is allowing what is latent in myself to find expression.

I have found some of the most obscure texts this way- Denmann Ross’ books on color and design (1910). I found 2 of these in large reject piles in university book stores for $2 and the third, I payed big money for. Or The Painter’s Secret Geometry by Bouleau  in which I discovered the theory of rabatment just when I was trying to figure out why Antonio Manchini used this system (in a framed grid form with string that the impression of which can still be seen where it was placed against the wet paint to make direct comparisons) and can be seen on many of his pieces such as “St. John the Baptist” in the Museum of Fine Art Boston. You never know what can happen, what will present itself when one is open to the possibilities.

Sometimes a book completes ideas that you only discovered piece by piece through old letters or other artists referring obliquely to them. Last week I found the complete text of Jay Hambridge’s, Dynamic Symmetry– unadulterated, organized and edited by Hambridge himself from his European magazine the Diagonal. This is the very version that Robert Henri read and applied to his own work. It is also the text that provoked Henri to contact Hambridge directly. I know a little about Dynamic Symmetry from Henri’s personal notes as well as his correspondence with Hambridge in which Henri seeks clarification about certain details in Hambridge’s compositional system. So finding the entire text was extremely exciting.

There has been much talk in the last couple of years about Munsell’s Color System and there is a small revival of his theories. On one of my bookstore searches I found one of the original publications of Henry Munsell’s theory, A Color Notation. It included a chart to be used by the artist to compare his own palette mixes with. This was not an early color printed chart which would not be so accurate but included the original color chips, Hue, Value, Chroma, in an unopened envelope. These chips were to be glued to the chart by the artist himself and are more accurate than any printing could be achieved at that time (1946). These original paint chips are invaluable.

Another interesting book I found was Goethe’s Theory of Colors: With Notes (1810). This translation was from 1840, in English just at the time Goethe’s theories were having a real impact. It was also translated by an artist from the Royal Academy, Charles Lock Eastlake. This was not a first edition text but was a facsimilie of the original. What I liked about this version was that it was less about Goethe’s theories contradicting Newton’s theories and more about his real insight into color and how an artist can utilize the text for his own benefit. I have looked at other versions of this book and found them difficult to extract what would be of interest to me as a painter such as his theory of colored shadows. I learned more about this phenomena on my first brief reading than I had known previously through observation. This should directly effect my personal observation skills.

The last book I came across was on William Blake and the Imagination, Blake and Antiquity (Bollingen Series, 1962). This is a book on aesthetics and directly relates to my recent interest in the material imagination- the basis of all art production. Blake allows for the independent nature of the imagination to have precedence over all creative impulses emerging from the artist, giving the inner voice free reign to reveal what it wills.

Beyond my summer reading, I would also like to show you some of my personal reveries on Cape Cod this year. So if you are wondering, “why these landscapes?”, they are just another part of the present equation that includes my thoughts as well as the visual journey I was on last week.

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