Creating Harmonics within a Chord

Robert Henri (American, 1865-1929) : The Little Dancer, 1916-18. Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio.

Henri’s use of the Maratta “Spectrum Palette” morphs and develops over the course of his career. Henri constantly investigated the scientific basis of the nature of color from Delacroix to Chevreul to Denman Ross as well as Maratta’s constantly evolving investigations. Add to this his own personal experimentation into color and one has a sense of the complexity of his pursuits.

In Henri’s notes of March 1,1919 (Henri has already worked with the spectrum palette for 10 years) he takes a chord and expands upon it in a new way. He shapes the expression of the chord by selecting one color or a section of the chord to take precedence. Henri first takes the chord PR-OY-B which includes the Bi colors of RObi, Gbi, BP. He expands this to 12 colors, creating the new spectrum palette that this chord produces, and mixes them on the palette. This includes the inter-mixtures between the colors including the Bi colors. So the palette looks like this:


(The lowercase letters are the inter-mixtures between the colors of original chord)

Now that he has the palette set, Henri decides that he wishes to emphasize the OY and the PR. If we look at the palette lay-out, Henri is emphasizing the warm end of the palette between PR and OY. The page reads as such:

(PR)      (OY)      (PR+OY)

R            Y           O

Rbi         Ybi         Obi

Rh          Yh         Oh

So one can observe, as an example, that the R color moves from an intense warm in a lighter value to Rh, a neutralized cool in a lower value. This seems useful because one can take the primaries of the chord and see them in several different values, color temperatures and intensities. This seems to accentuate the quality of the chord. It also allows Henri to use the colors without excessive mixing. He can lay down the color of say, O and give it variety in value and temperature by laying down the Obi and Oh to shape the form. These colors are in a harmonious relationship already and laying them down as such allows for that harmony to be made evident on the canvas.

Another aspect to this is that the dominant color of the chord begins to penetrate every aspect of the composition. The lighter value, intense, warm color of the chord comes forward, let us say, as a carnation on the face. Then, let us say, that the Bi color which is of a middle value and slightly less intense and cooler occupies an article of clothing or a chair. Then, let us say, the hue occupies the background being the darkest value, least intense and the coolest. This arrangement allows a single color to find its place throughout the image and intensify one’s sensation of that color.

Musically, this feels like harmonics. The dominant color creates vibrations throughout the canvas and re-emphasizes the chord. The only concern with the addition of more colors added to the chord, is that one does not want to lose the character of the chord.

Further reading on this subject can be found in “Radiating Intensities” and “Spectrum Color Recession“.

Please note that the image of “The Little Dancer” is not in this chord but was painted around the same period as the entry, March 1, 1919 and has similar qualities.

Achieving Luminosity

Figure with Yellow Drape

This past fall there was a wonderful show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on John Singer Sargent. One aspect that I really liked about the exhibit is that there were many smaller works that Sargent had painted of his friends and of other artists as well as small figurative studies. The important thing to remember is that in these situations, Sargent was not trying to please a client. Sargent allows himself to experiment in these paintings and really be free to express or re-express his direction artistically. In many ways, one could see how his work matured from imitating the Spaniards to Impressionism to his mature decorations.

One thing that I was struck by was Sargent’s feeling of luminosity in these images. The feeling of light seemed to emanate from the figures. How did Sargent achieve this effect? Luminosity is not about strong color, but the balance between color intensity and the neutral. In most of the images, Sargent focuses on one dominant color that carries an intensity on a foil of a pervading neutral. This neutral could be black or umber (which he used extensively in the early work) or a combination of complements (which surfaces during his experimentation with Impressionism) or a combination of a dominant triad ( a red, yellow, blue/black). This foil of the neutral allows the intensity of the purer color to really be felt. It maximizes the feeling of light by contrast. Also, a neutral tends to take on the color of the complement when placed close to a purer color. Thereby creating an innate harmony that is subtle and elusive.

Kneeling Figure2

Another method that he used was his control of values. I found on observation that Sargent creates the greatest contrast of value, not within the confines of the figure, which one would expect, but between the figure and the background. There is an over-all unity of value within the figure that keeps it luminous and light filled. This stands in contrast to a darker, more neutral background. This is not typical of 19th century painting. In most cases the cast shadows within the figure are emphasized to create a feeling of the projection of form in space. By subduing the need for contrast within the confines of the figure and holding the values tight, the figure as a unit, feels luminous.

I am not saying that all of Sargent’s work falls within these parameters. But the work that sparked my imagination as an artist were those images he painted solely for himself or among friends. There he was the experimenter. As an example, the portrait of Mancini, is in many ways, Sargent’s  exploration into Mancini’s own method. It almost looks like a Mancini painting. This type of dialogue between peers is most intriguing to study.

Figure with White Drape2

My work of late, including these small figure studies, is a product of my own dialogue with Sargent. Through this conversation with the master, I have experimented with these ideas in order to incorporate them into my own work. Not to be ‘Sargent like’ but to further explore the possibilities of paint.

(I’ve added these images to my gallery which I invite you to visit.)

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.

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