Intensity Palettes of Robert Henri: Practical


Judith Reeve, “Quince on Red”, 6″ x 6″, oil on board, 2017

Over the past several months, I have been working with Henri’s Intensity Palettes of 1915-16. These palettes consist of a full spectrum of colors, like the Maratta palettes. The difference is that Henri created a hierarchy of intensity in these palettes. Therefore, there could only be 1-3 colors that remained at full intensity along the full spectrum of 12 colors. All the other colors of the full spectrum would appear reduced in intensity and at times, appear in 3 values per color. This design creates a feeling that the color emanates from a certain sector of the spectrum, emphasizing the dominate color or series of colors (this relates to Henri’s use of the super-color). This dominate color, in many cases, reflects the light source present in the composition, but not always. The dominate color could also reflect the nature of the object presented, a shirt, drape or background color.

I found that these palettes had their difficulties. The primary one, mixing the colors in their reduced intensity and achieve a good balance between the color relationships. This will take a lot more practice on my part. Henri, himself, found this same difficulty and wished to simplify these palettes, creating a design that was more directly understood. His last Intensity Palettes in 1916 form a simple design that is readily understood. Henri divided the 12 spectrum colors into 2 groups: 6 colors would appear at full intensity balanced by 6 colors reduced to half intensity. This creates a beautiful palette that emphasizes a portion of the full spectrum that finds tonal support from a series of reduced intensity colors. Henri also divides his palette along the lines of the warm colors set against the cool colors. Although he varies this line of division sometimes, Henri tends to stick with it as his main design. This is the palette:

R09    O9    OY 11    Y11    YG13    G11    GB5    B5    BP5    P5    PR5    R5

The number beside each color represents the intensity. RO-G are listed at their highest intensity, where they naturally fall on the scale of intensity. GB-R are reduced to 5 which may or may not be at 50% intensity but they give a unified feeling of reduction in the color on the cool range of the spectrum (Henri refers to these as at 50% or half intensity).

Here are two small images, 6″ x 6″. In both compositions, I used this above intensity Palette. “Quince on Red” concentrated on the inter-play between the complements of YG-G at full intensity set against the PR-R at half intensity (I did use other colors in a very limited way, as well). In “Primaries”, I used the chord R-OY-B, with the OY at full intensity and the R and B at 50% intensity. This OY appears in the ground plane with B and is semi-neutralized with this B. Using this palette, the chord forms its own hierarchy: OY-R-B. Although the R and B are at 50%, the B naturally feels the most reduced because its value is deeper and it is cooler than the red. In both compositions, I ended up not using the full array of colors because these were very small images. I have used a greater range of this particular palette for some small figurative paintings using 3/4 ths of the color. I am about to begin a large scale figurative piece with this same palette and will report on the results in the near future.

Judith Reeve, “Primaries”, 6″ x 6″, oil on board, 2017.

What I found successful about the half Intensity Palette is that the color itself appeared strong and vibrant but under control and balanced. It was remarkable to find that the reduced colors from the cool side of the spectrum did not feel dull. These colors played wonderfully against the full intensity colors on the warm side and I imagine brought out Chevreul’s simultaneous contrast by providing an inter-play between an intense color at a higher value against a reduced intensity color at a lower value, hence a perfect combination to get the most out of the color and image.

Both these images, which are framed in hand-guilded wood frames by myself, are on sale now at the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance Gallery, Narrowsburg, New York. Please inquire.