Re-Formatting Denman Ross’ Palette IV

Judith Reeve painting in her studio

Over the past several weeks, I have been experimenting with the DR IV HC palette of Denman Ross. I have concentrated in the H4 and C3 sections of the palette and have found the color temperature variety very beautiful and subtle. I have also discovered that the palette is most effective when the figure is in the light with half-tones and shadows occupying no more than 50%. Also, the light tones of the palette are beautiful when set-off against a darker background. When I had the reverse situation, light background with the figure in shadow, the palette did not ‘sing’ as it ought to.

There were many interesting color mixes obtained that could not have been mixed in any other way. The combinations of cool and warm tones, set in an array of values facilitated beautiful neutrals that were distinct in color and related to the higher key tones. These I used for the cool shadow edges and to transition the light flesh into the background. Another surprising discovery was that a cool greenish tint made along the top of the C4 line was great for highlights. I found this surprising because I normally use a violet highlight on top of a warmer half-tone. Delacroix found this to be the case in his journal. Many times he felt he had the flesh too violet and by placing a yellowish highlight on top, the form came together. He remarks that Ruben’s followed the same method.

DR IV HC, Triads H4, C3 re-formatted diagram

Last week, I re-formatted the palette and changed the triangular format to one where there are two columns. The column to the left is the H4 area and the column to the right is the C3 area. This format created a separation between the warm mixes(left) and the cool mixes (right). By repeating the violet (high light) tone and the RO (middle) tone, I was able to divide the palette successfully. Here is a diagram of the new format (Just the H4, C3 triads). The ‘X’ are the mixes occurring between the root notes:

Re-formatted diagram of H4, C3 triads

As Robert Henri worked with this palette (the full palette with all of the 8 triads), he too divided it into two columns to separate the cools from the warms, although, he maintained each triads’ triangular format (H4, C3, etc.) Henri, in the new format presented each triad opposite its complementary triad. On Ross’ palette, as set in The Painter’s Palette, he alternates between the warm and the cool triads. Henri simplifies this and states in his notebook, “All the cold groups are on the left side…The effect of these tiles (Henri painted swatches to facilitate re-mixing the tones) is decidedly satisfactory. The four octaves from to LD., and the notes in each octave, and the play of complementarys, are all very plainly defined. Of course the tiles may very easily be arranged back into the original DR diagram.” (DR IV HC, January 17,1920; Box 26, Folder 601, Paint 3, p.36)

Full Palette re-formatted by Robert Henri

Although, my palette has the warms on the left instead of the cools, this can easily be re-arranged to suit each artist. Because, in my version, I am concentrating on the upper right rectangle in the original diagram, this format mimics Denman Ross’ diagram. Henri also repeats the root tones as necessary to facilitate easier mixing of tones (the repetition of the sides of the triangles is where the root notes are repeated). For myself, I have a yellow sticky note under the glass to remind myself of the new arrangement.

Judith Reeve using Denman Ross Palette
DR IV HC mixes after a painting session

One change to this version of the palette was the addition of a higher register of value for the Y (H.Lt.) and the V (H.Lt.). I did not create any mixes between these two new notes, as I did with the  original root notes. I left these at the top of the palette to accentuate the highlights, either warm or cool depending on my needs. I attempted not to change the over-all tonality of the palette because I felt in its present state it was beautiful and unified.

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.

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