Henri’s Exploration of Color Intensity


Robert Henri, “Lilly Cow”, 1915

In 1915, Henri and his artist friends met in Charles Winter’s studio to experiment with color. Attending were H.G. Maratta, John Sloan, George Bellows, Randall Davey and, of course, Henri and Winter. This group would meet periodically when a member artist felt that they had come upon an insight into color, theoretical or practical, or the set palette (which each was experimenting with individually). It must be noted also, that Maratta’s knowledge was sought after by the group who desired to practically apply his theories.

This day, they came to discuss pigments and their inherent intensity in their pure state. Henri, along with the others, produced a chart giving each pigment, in its pure state, a place along a scale of intensity between 3 and 13. 13 being the highest intensity and 3 being the lowest intensity with two scales below that range 1 (Hues that approach a neutral) and S (which combines a Hue with a Color to achieve what Henri notes at the bottom of the page: “The mixtures indicated for the 1 and S lines were those which seemed the most practical”).

Henri notes in his journal that, “the fixing of the higher intensity of each color was difficult. It was rather surprising that YG should be thought of as the most intense. There evidently was some confounding of value with intensity. Evidence of this may be found in the great step between P and YG. This P while very dark proved itself to be a very powerful (intense) pigment when mixed with white.” (Notebook: Artists’ Pigments I, folder 19, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Here is a brief indication of the chart which has been reproduced in William Innes Homer’s book, “Henri and His Circle”, page 188:

13                                                                    YG

11    G  GB                                          OY     Y       G

9                                      R  RO  O

7               B  BP        PR             Below each color the intensity descends to S

5                           P

3               B hue    P hue

1 All the Hues for each color

S Hue+complementary color for each color


The original chart is easier to see the relationships (I cannot reproduce it here without permission from Yale). So please refer to Homer, page 188. Henri, subsequently, went on to produce many charts for different paintings, creating a scale of intensity for that particular image or series of images. So in one image Y may be the most intense and in another O or GB. So although the chart above indicates a pigments intensity right from the tube, it is not the only scale on which to create a palette.

What is interesting about this new approach is that the notes for a palette are chosen on a diagonal (one never uses the entire palette in an image). This diagonal form maintains that when there is a change in color, there is also a change in intensity. Therefore, each color occupies a specific intensity. Henri states, “For instance, take Y- to move from Y to OY will not be a horizontal move- as OY (9),Y (9) but with Y (9) and OY (7). If the next step is to O that O could be moved to (9) or of course move further down- or up( if possible) in the scale of intensities.” (Notebook: Artists’ Pigments, folder 19). So if Y is at (9) intensity, the next colors along the spectrum on either side are not at a (9) scale of intensity, but are of a higher (11) or lower (7) scale of intensity.

This idea can easily be interwoven into Maratta’s approach. Maratta being in Winter’s studio as part of the experimentation is telling. Maratta may have had the most insight into how intensity can dominate. Chords in the Maratta system inherently create a hierarchy of intensity. The dominant color of the chord stays near its full intensity within an image while simultaneously, floating  amidst a series of colors that are less intense (bi colors and hues). This is what gives chords their feeling of luminosity.

This chart becomes for Henri a point of experimentation over the next couple of years. Henri moves away from strict chord relationships (Maratta) to one where a hierarchy of intensity within the composition of a painting begins to preoccupy him. One can observe this in the paintings themselves from this period. They become largely about pushing color intensity to the point where spacial depth becomes shallower through large areas of the background being occupied by intense colors applied in a flat manner. An example of this is another version of “Lilly Cow”. Henri takes this course to its inevitable end where form borders on abstraction. Henri, who loved the beauty of form, backs away from this precipice.

These years of experimentation with color intensity informs Henri’s work until his last years. Although, he abandons color intensity at its extreme end, he maintains the hierarchy of intensity as set by Maratta through his system of musical chords. By 1916, Henri has integrated his new understanding of color intensity into Maratta’s chord system. But now Henri has become a master of color in all of its aspects while simultaneously maintaining his love of form. Henri always returns to his central pursuit- the constant search for true expression of soul in his portraits which he referred to as “My People”. Color intensity has now amplified that expression.




A Palette of Two Triads with Varying Intensities

Nude Study


Over the last two weeks, I have been experimenting with a new palette. Some of my palettes are very complex and need much time to be developed and refined. But sometimes, I like to have a palette that is very simple and can be used with any subject. This is important especially when one is painting away from one’s own studio and is in an unfamiliar space with different variables such as light quality. I have been apt to use a triad of primaries, red, yellow and blue in these situations. I usually create a hierarchy of intensity within the triad by adding an earth tone as one of the primaries. Some variations on this are:

Triads with Diff intensities

These palettes express a variation of intensity in one of the primaries and have been in application, used very successfully. But over the past two weeks, I have experimented with this palette:

two triads high low intensities


This is a set of two triads, the first with a high intensity chroma and the second with a low intensity chroma. This seems like a lot of repetition. But what I found is that rather than trying to subdue a color that was too intense, I used its low intensity version. An example would be an orange made with Cadmium vermilion + Cadmium yellow + White vs. English red + Raw sienna+ White. I also made a decision about the quality of the light source. While painting this figure study, the model was illuminated by an electric incandescent light, with a cooler sky light above. In this situation, the intensity of color came from the incandescent light. This left the shadows more neutral. There was also the play of a cooler light on the top planes that added some neutrality and temperature variation on the light side as well as the shadow side.

So in using this palette, I decided that the light side should contain the most intensity and therefore used the high intensity chroma triad to express the primary light source. And I used the low intensity chroma triad to express the shadow side and all receding planes including the background. This gave an immediate feeling of projection to the forms of the figure. The exception being that the triads intermingled in the neutrals along the shadow edge and the reflected light on the top planes on the shadow side. I found that adding a touch of cobalt blue and english red to the top planes on the shadow side united the two triads perfectly through the cobalt blue ( high intensity palette) and the english red (low intensity palette).

This arrangement of the palette with its primary concern for the light source and its quality of intensity and color temperature was very successful. I have yet to experiment with the reverse situation, where the light source is cooler and most of the color intensity resides in the half tones and shadow side. But I believe that it will work in that situation as well, as long as I consciously organized and decipher the quality of light on my subject and use the palette accordingly.

Immensity and the Largeness of Effect

fig10-2Rockwell Kent from Wilderness: A Journal of a Quiet Adventure in Alaska, 1920.

“Why is the sight of the sea so infinitely and eternally attractive?

Because the sea simultaneously provides the idea of immensity and movement.”

Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire goes on to express that all great works of genius contain an element of ‘immensity’. Immensity has very little to do with the actual size of a work but with  that interior feeling of vastness combined with a sense of fragility. The image astonishes us and “…entails a nervous shock…” producing something like fear, that this sublime moment shall pass and I will fail to seize hold of its nature. It is a moment of recognition that this very immensity I experience in the image resides simultaneously within myself. There dwells a correspondence and a ‘sympathy’ which allows my being in its wholeness to complete the image. The image itself has been waiting for me.

Last week, I reread “Wilderness” by Rockwell Kent which combines images he produced in Alaska with his daily journal entries on Fox Island during the seven months he spent there with his 10-year-old son. In one entry he describes a woodblock he is carving. It contains vast mountains and a rough sea. He spent several nights carving it and deliberating over its form. He ends the entry by saying that it is only two inches square! Multum in parvo– Immensity held in a small space.

“There are moments of existence when time and expanse are more profound, and the sense of existence is hugely enhanced.”  Are not the images that we find truly moving descriptive of these moments? These images may not contain great or historic events or unbelievable places or profound personalities, but are most often an ordinary commonplace. “In certain almost supernatural states of soul, the profundity of life is entirely revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself before one. The scene becomes its Symbol.

When I reflect on the child portraits of Robert Henri, especially the late Irish portraits, I find immensity there. Though ordinary children, he expresses an ‘immensity of soul’ combined with the fragility of childhood, so time bound and fleeting. Henri expresses this immensity with all the potentiality of the child which time destroys as the child matures. This is something that we too have been a part of- our own childhood and the memories of that time and our own latent potential in youth. The immensity expressed in these children reaches out to us and we find our place there.

Are there some painting techniques or practices that can assist my images as I search for a feeling of immensity in my work? I look to Delacroix as my guide. A strong composition and the evocative use of color can lead you. The suppression of detail combined with a preservation of the masses as well as a quality of incompleteness adds to this feeling. It must also not be too objective, but needs to contain an element of the ‘self’ or personality of the artist as well as unconscious or ill-defined material. There is also an element of movement. When Baudelaire describes our fascination with the sea, it is movement that also captivates us. Delacroix achieved movement through brush stroke as well as the use of complements and colored edges. Henri achieved movement through the compositional use of color where there is a constant and subtle adjustment in color and tone to move the eye around the image. There are others as well. These are just some of the tools in the artists’ toolbox. But first and foremost one needs the eyes to see.

I love the obscure French book, Mt. Analogue in which the characters of the story find that there is a hidden world in our very midst and that it only takes their willingness to engage that world in order to enter upon the journey. The journey itself takes place under the guise of a commonplace, a sea voyage. But it is this initiation that will inevitably lead them to Mt Analogue. I believe having an open mind and heart will create the ability for one to see with a greater awareness the imaginative potential and vastness latent in the commonplace. Immensity of soul, of lived experience, will inevitably lead to a feeling of expansion within the image.

All Quotes from, Charles Baudelaire’s, Intimate Journals, trans. Norman Cameron, 1995.

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