A review of a book recommended by Robert Henri in his book “The Art Spirit”
Denman Ross’ book “The Painter’s Palette” is subtitled “A Theory of Tone Relations: An Instrument of Expression.” Ross’ primary purpose for writing the book is
Thinking of musical instruments and the laws of Counterpoint and of Harmony,
the question comes up whether it may not be possible for the
painter to convert his palette into an instrument of precision
and to make the production of effects of light and color a well
ordered procedure, a procedure which everyone can understand
“After more than twenty
years given to the consideration of this question and to experiments
in the use of set-palettes, I am fully persuaded that it
is perfectly possible to make of the painter’s palette an instrument
of precision, an instrument which will serve him both
as a mode of thought and means of expression. He will then
use his palette very much as the musician uses his voice or the
violin or the piano.
Ross’ book is only sixty-four pages long and its main portion discusses the several palette systems or layouts possible for creating Ross’ desired “instrument of precision.” It is a technical discussion of the effects created by the artist’s pigments. The fundamental effect derived from the pigments is tone; a term including in its meaning both value and color: value being the quantity of light of a tone; color being the quality of the light of a tone.
Ross discusses in part one of his book the scales of values; in this case, he divides the scale between white and black into nine divisions: black, low dark, dark, high dark, middle, low light, light, high light, and black.
[ There are several sites on line where one can create his own scale of values; but
I prefer the RGB Gradient Maker.]
In my case,I have found that the scale of values used determines the focal distance of a painting; therefore, I use a twelve step scale; this gives me a four to five
foot focal distance for my paintings. I keep at my easel a printout of values
in relationships of one step, two steps, and three and four; really, it is five
as there is a white background. When painting, I will fit an observed value
into one of these relationships. My eventual goal is to be able to feel the desired
value step and not keep doing the mechanical comparisons: when painting or
drawing there is a perceived space from front to back of the overall scene and
between the object’s parts, between objects, and within the totality of the painting.
In part two, Ross breaks the color scale into the well known twelve step color wheel; he lays out two parallel lines of the twelve colors: one row is violet to yellow and below it is a row of yellow to violet. He does this in order to more easily to discuss values, warm and cool, and mixing pigments. Of the colors, violet is the darkest and yellow is the lightest; red-orange is the warmest and blue-green is the coolest; violet is neutral on the warm/cool scale as is yellow; the warm scale runs from violet through orange to yellow; the cool scale runs from violet to yellow through green.
Ross’ layouts of colors in its ultimate configuration, in my opinion, would
require a door size sheet of glass in order for there to be space not only for the
layout of pigments, the creation of the pure colors, and then the creation of
the needed tones; fortunately, Ross does provide progressively smaller palettes.
Personally, being a person of limited means, I prefer to layout my palette
according the areas being painted in the work session and the colors I anticipate
being used. Before reading The Painter’s Palette, in response to a video about Manet, I started laying warm and cool versions of each color I plan to use; I had begun a study of a figure in a painting using this system; but, upon reading Denman’s book, I changed my palette to a layout of two lines of pigments: on one side is the row of the warm pigments I want to use and on the other side is the row of cool colors. Hansa Yellow Medium is my warm yellow and Nickel Azo Yellow is my cool yellow.
Even though the study is not yet finished, the portions wherein I have used the dual row palette demonstrate a major leap forward in my understanding.
I am using Denman’s system on the legs.
One of the biggest problems I have encountered is that the color I am mixing changes color as I look at it. Also, I am taking Henri’s advice to focus on the dominant tone when determining the nature of the minor tones.