Bringing Neutral Colours to Life

Synchronicity in the Studio

How many times this week did you think of someone, only to have them call or email in that moment?

This happened a few times with my mom this week (we’ve always done that) but increasingly I’m seeing it with, and between, my students.

On Friday Tammy and I were in the studio discussing her current painting when my phone beeped. And there was Claire, asking the exact question – in detail – that Tammy and I were working on. The back of my neck zinged.

What are the chances?

In any case, the question and the answer are both interesting for artists and art-lovers:

What is Robert Henri trying to tell us?

Claire kicked off her question with a quote from Robert Henri (artist, 1865-1929), where he talks about neutral colours placed against brights – or in his words, graves against pures:

“There is a power in the palette which is composed of both pure and grave colors that makes it wonderfully practical and which presents possibilities unique to itself.

It is the grave colors, which were so dull on the palette, that become the living colors in the picture.  The brilliant colors are their foil….The grave colors, affected by juxtaposition, undergo the transformation that warrants my use of the word “living”. They seem to move, rise and fall in their intensity, are in perpetual motion.

I have seen an arrangement of a bright color and a very mud-like neutral pigment present…a transference of brilliancy – the neutral presenting…a sizzling complementary brilliance far overpowering the ‘pure color’ with which it was associated.”

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

Claire wanted to know what Henri was trying to tell us. What are these “grave” and “pure” colours?

Lively Greys

Tammy’s work is a perfect illustration. Take a look at these close-ups, where she’s placed greyed neutrals (created by mixing two complementary colours together) against colours almost straight from the tube:

“Perpetual motion” – absolutely. There is so much life in these palette knife strokes, made even more brilliant by the greys placed up against the brighter colours.

Her finished painting plays with these ideas on an even grander scale:

“Glory” by Tammy Sloan, 2019

You can see Robert Henri playing with the concept in this painting:

Normandie Interior, Robert Henri

Look carefully at her skirt, where the “greys” are actually very neutralized purples and yellows – brought to life by the proximity of small touches of their brighter complements.

I feel some grey painting challenges coming on. And thankfully, our rainy day is cooperating. Synchronicity, right? 🙂

Wishing you some bright spots on this day!


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