Color Scales, Henri and the Winter’s Studio Group

Robert Henri, Young Buck of Tesuque Pueblo, 1916

Recently, I have been studying the intensity palettes of Robert Henri. These studies were part of a group effort by artists that surrounded Henri in 1915-1916. These included the artists George Bellows, John Sloan as well as Charles Winter, Randall Davey and H. G. Maratta. These meetings took place in Charles Winter’s studio. The group was interested in studying color intensity and coming up with a language that could identify color intensity in a practical way. Maratta had already explored this aspect of color in his Spectrum Color Chart patent of 1909. In this patent, Maratta identifies 5 levels that a color can be diminished by from its pure state to its near neutralization in a hue (a hue is a color that is neutralized but still maintains the character of its color- it blueness or its redness etc. Hue is used as such only in Maratta’s system and by those associated with the group of artists surrounding Henri).

But what Maratta had not achieved was a complete language to identify each color’s intensity and to create a scale of such intensity [In 1905 Albert Munsell will create a sphere that will include intensity (called chroma in Munsell’s version) as part of the spherical design and measured radially]. One of the first activities by the group was a creation of a chart that identified where each color in the spectrum in its most intense state fell in relationship to the complete spectrum of 12 colors. The intensity range was identified as 13 at the top of the scale and 1 at the bottom of the scale. So, 13 was the most intense and 1 was the least intense. The scale did not include every number between 1 and 13 but were actually numbered as follows in descending intensity: 13, 11, 9, 7, 5, 3, 1. Below this was a series of neutralized tones identified as ‘s’.

Therefore, each color received a number that identified where it fell in its most intense state as a pure, unadulterated color and from this top point, included all those mixes in descending intensity to ‘s’. What the group found was that the color YG was situated at 13 in its most intense state and therefore had a descending range down the entire scale to ‘s’. This is the only color that the group found that spanned the entire chart. At level 11 is G, GB, OY, Y, YG and G (reduced one register). Level 9 included a reduction in intensity of all the above plus B, R, RO, and O at their most intense state. Level 7 included all the above reduced one level and BP and PR at their most intense. Level 5 included all the above plus P at its most intense. Level 3, 1, and ‘s’ include all the 12 colors of the spectrum reduced at each level descending to near neutralization at level ‘s’.

If we look at the 12 colors of the spectrum they appear at their highest intensity at different levels. These are the colors in their pure, unadulterated state. Henri and his group identified where they fell on the chart by the indication of a number in the exponents place:

  • VR7
  • R9
  • RO9
  • O9
  • OY11
  • Y11
  • YG13
  • G11
  • GB11
  • B9
  • BP7
  • P5

But what was particularly interesting about the intensity chart was the idea of color scale. Henri and the other artists involved with the experiments used the term scale in a musical sense. In regards to paint, each color was reduced in intensity by it’s hue. An example: G was reduced by G hue. Secondly, each color scale ended with the addition of the complement. This was important because it showed how each scale was, in a sense, circular. The G scale ended with the addition of the R hue added to the lowest intensity G (at ‘s’). If the scale were to continue it would slowly become the R scale. Moving from the ‘s’ level, the color at its most reduced intensity, one would slowly begin to add R hue in less and less amounts to R until one reached R in its pure state.

Robert Henri, Mary Fanton Roberts, 1917

This circular aspect of the color scales I found most intriguing. And this insight effected all the artists involved. Sloan discusses color scales in “The Gist of Art” and like Henri uses this insight from 1915 onward. It becomes a method to visually allow color to subtly move across the surface of the canvas. This created a feeling of depth and an inherent sense of the movement of color in the composition. Each artist became attuned to the power of manipulating a color’s intensity to achieve various ends. Henri uses a color scale to take an area that is basically, say O, and create variety within that O area by painting it in various intensities of the O scale. This added an ‘aliveness’ to what should have been a flat color area. Henri also created depth by moving that O scale toward its complement of B allowing the O to travel spatially backward into the canvas. These are just two examples among many that Henri speaks of through his paintings at this time as well as in the “Art Spirit”.