Color Progression through Semi-Neutrals


Denman Ross, Palette 1H 1C, The Painter’s Palette, p. 24.

As part of my studies into the palettes of Denman Ross, I have been reading and experimenting with Arthur Pope’s palettes as presented in his The Painter’s Terms, Vol. 1, 1929. In this work, Pope reviews the concepts Ross had based his palettes on as well as re-presenting Ross’ Palette 1H and 1C (this can be found in The Painter’s Palette by Ross, p. 24). I found Pope’s version, Type B Palette, very enlightening. Pope lays out the color spectrum following the 7 value structure between the extremes of white at the top and black at the bottom (Ross, see above). The colors of the spectrum are mixed so that their value follows this structure. So some colors are lightened or darkened to a set value between HLt and LD, depending on their placement within this value structure.

These palettes contain 2 opposing movements-a movement up to Y at HLt set against a movement down to Y at LD. Each column is aligned with its complement. There is both a warm version and a cool version of the Type B Palette (hence why Ross referred to his as 1H and 1C). The warm version, Fig. 54 and 55 (Pope), contains the colors Y, OY, O, RO, R, VR, V at their, “… normal value levels in the tone solid, and may be obtained at their highest intensities.” (Pope, p. 132) The cool version presents the Y, YG, G, GB, B, BV, V at their normal value level and therefore, allow them to appear at their highest level of intensity in this cool version (Pope, Fig.56, p. 132, not shown).

Arthur Pope, Type B Palette, warm version. The Painter’s Terms, p.131.

I would like to examine the Type B Palette, warm version (Diagram above). Pope sets it out very much like Ross had, except he identifies the nomenclature of the mixes (the mixes I am referring to are those that run down the middle of each column). And by naming them, clarifies how they look and how they fall along the color spectrum as near-neutrals. These mixes are created by mixing colors on a diagonal (as Ross had recommended). If we examine Fig. 55, Pope lays out the possible mixes, along the diagonals as well as between the direct neutrals, in the Type B Palette in two columns on either side of the circle diagrams. By laying it out in this fashion, we can examine the movement along the color spectrum of these near-neutrals. On the left column in the center, in smaller print, we can see a descending movement from G, YG, Y, OY, O, RO. And on the right in the center column a descending movement from R, VR, V, BV, B, GB. The direct neutrals appear between these mixes, such as R and G.

I have re-created these two diagrams, with the G-RO descending movement first and the R-GB descending movement second.

Judith Reeve, Type B Palette warm version, first set of mixes.
Judith Reeve, Type B warm version, second set of mixes.

These two descending movements indicate near-neutrals that mimic the color spectrum in its recession, 6 colors in each column separated by the direct neutral mixes. This is very similar to H.G. Maratta’s Bi colors which are mixes that follow the color spectrum and are created from near-neutrals. Near-neutrals maintain an integrity of color identification that is not possible in direct neutrals. When a near-neutral is mixed the color obtained shifts that mixture from the center of the color wheel (where neutrals are situated) toward a specific color area. Pope explores this phenomena in the circle diagrams in Fig. 55. If we look at the RO-GB diagram, we can see that a direct line drawn between these complements creates a neutral that falls directly in the center of the circle. If, instead, the RO is mixed with G, the line drawn between these two colors shifts the mix toward the OY, as indicated in the diagram. If the RO is mixed with say, a B, this mix will shift the color mixture toward the BV. This is the best graphic that I have come across to explain where a near-neutral will fall within a color wheel or along the color spectrum (of reduced intensity, semi-neutral tones).

Judith Reeve, near-neutrals derived from R and RO mixes.

I experimented with these near-neutrals for the colors R and RO. If we look at the R (on the left), I mixed the R with YG, G (the direct neutral), GB. Pope calls these the O, N (neutral), BV near-neutrals. I have added white to these tones next to the mixes, so the nature of the color can be seen. With the RO I mixed with G, GB, B plus white again. Pope calls these the OY, N, V near- nuetrals. I also mixed the RO with the YG because Maratta calls this his OY bi color.

I also compared Maratta’s version with Pope’s version. Maratta’s appear in parentheses. Some of Maratta’s near-neutrals are mixed with slightly different combinations (which I prefer for their greater intensity) and some are exactly the same but may have a different nomenclature. Maratta’s near-neutrals, his term-bi colors, follow a progression along the color spectrum just as Ross’ and Pope’s versions.

I feel this experiment has helped me to understand the nature of the near-neutrals and how they tend or shift to a specific area of color within the color wheel or along the spectrum band. This will facilitate a more subtle understanding of neutrals especially for flesh tones. Also knowing where these near-neutrals fall along the spectrum could assist in creating areas of paint that can heighten one another through juxtaposition. A near-neutral OY could be placed along side a near-neutral BV to create a complementary interplay. Or a strong BV could find added intensity along side a near-neutral OY. One could play with optical mixing or a contrast of complements. Either way, with this knowledge, the tools are now in the hands of the artist.

[I would like to thank Bill Reed for pointing out this text, The Painter’s Terms, by Arthur Pope that has been so enlightening].

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

2 thoughts on “Color Progression through Semi-Neutrals”

  1. This is really fascinating. I don’t understand it completely. What do you mean by first and second set of mixes? Do bi colors act as half tones?

    1. Hi Wendy,
      By first and second set of mixes: Both color charts contain the same root colors. What is different is which colors I mixed on the diagonal. If you look at the direct complements, there is a color above and below the complement. One chart mixes these half-complements ‘above’ the direct neutral and the other mixes the half-complement ‘below’ the direct neutral. This is why the semi-neutrals down the center of each color chart are a different color progression. This diagonal mixing is key to understanding Denman Ross’ system. Regarding the use of the semi-neutrals, yes,these could occupy the half-tones or they could support by juxtaposition the more intense colors on the palette. By juxtaposing an intense color and a semi-neutral, one can achieve ‘optical’ mixes that are more lively than with direct mixing. But these semi-neutrals can occupy any area of the canvas and need not be relegated to only these choices.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.