figure painting

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
and follow.
“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.



New painting just finished titled On the Pier; this is the one I have been working on for over two years; the main dilemma was how to recreate the energy of the water without copying the photo or being realistic. I finally settled on the solution by the difference between value changes and using the palette knife.

As with the painting of the boardwalk cart pusher, this painting is meant to show movement across the picture plane. The needs of the painting outweigh the need for proportion and description. This means putting composition first. one of the consequences of putting composition first is that the standing are compressed vertically; but the fellow in the beach chair is elongated in comparison


The main lines were set out first: the pier floor is established on the bottom line tripartite canvas division (line #1) making the pier a stage but not as strong as lines created using the bipartite power lines; the distant shore and woods are established using the upper quarter-line of the bipartite canvas division (line #2); the three figures play off of this upper line.

The seated figure slumps into the half-third line (#3) on the right which is reinforced by the piling; his knees anchor to the line of the first third (#4); This line is reinforced by the second pier piling and the empty chair. The piling on the left sits directly on the one-third line and is the main anchor for the pier(line #5). The female figure’s ankle is secured to the center vertical (line #6) as she steps away from it moving to the left. the male figure’s back right foot is anchored on the left side’s one-fourth vertical (line # 7) as he steps to the left of the picture plan; his forward left foot steps onto the half-fourth vertical (line #8); his head is moving between these two verticals.

Woman in a Red Dress

Woman in a Red Shirt: Oil on 300# wc paper

I just finished this painting a few days ago.

I started this painting as a response to Picasso’s Woman in a Blue Veil the version of a young girl: I understood his painting to be the Annunciation to Mary: the blue veil alludes to the blue commonly associated to Mary in European art history, the image is a young girl not fully developed, and the light falling upon the face from her left and her concentration on it.

I wanted to make an image that would allude to the quality of Eros: in European painting she is the Lady in Red juxtaposed to Love in the painting by Titian: Sacred and Profane Love. The idea was to keep the painting simple in the manner of Picasso’s painting; but I got more and more deeply involved with appearances and detail as the painting progressed: so, under the original terms the painting is a failure.

The distortions are an effect of compositional decisions. The skin color isĀ  variations on the color copper. The background colors are the fifths to the clothing and the skin colors.