Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Prismatic Palette

Frank Mason (1921-2009) was a painter and teacher at the Art Students League who used a shelf-like palette arrangement for his oil paints called "The Prismatic Palette." One of Mason's students, Keith Gunderson, explained it to me this way:

Prismatic Palette by Leslie Watkins 

"The value scale was the essence of the shelf arrangements, with emphasis on “Orange Value” as the unifying tone of the lights. The shelves were arrayed with a string of greens made from “Parent Green”; premixed value strings of Blue, Violet, and Grey to calibrate atmospheric perspective; a shelf for pre-mixed tints for the sky; and a “Control String” of pure colors squeezed from the tube, arranged by value from light to dark."

"Modulating a color with it’s complement was often substituted by mixing grey or brown into that color... perhaps an influence of Frank’s teacher [Frank Vincent] Dumond (1865-1951) and Dumond’s teacher, [Jules Joseph] Lefebvre (1836–1911)."

I have also heard "parent green" referred to as "vegetable green," the color of transmitted light through backlit young leaves.

Landscape by Frank Vincent Dumond 

Here are a couple of paintings by League instructor and link to the French tradition, Frank Vincent Dumond, showing his very sensitive approach to color.

Dumond, Christ and the Fishermen, 1891 

Leslie Watkins, another Mason student, describes the prismatic palette this way:

From Pinterest via Outdoor Painter

"It clarifies several strings of colors into even steps, with the lightest or highest values descending to the lowest or darkest tones."

"The steps are based on pure colors from cadmium lemon yellow to alizarin crimson. The different strings of colors consist of grays, violets, blues and greens."

Another Art Students League teacher (and another Frank), Frank Reilly (1906-1965), also taught a value-based system of premixing palette colors, but it was different from Mason's. Reilly's lineage connects him to Gérôme, Delaroche and Boulanger.

Both systems are descendants of a common practice among painters before the 20th century to premix colors in sequences of stepped values, analogous to the keys and manuals of a pipe organ.

I'm obviously no expert on the League instructors' systems, so I welcome further insights and discussion in the comments.

Previously on GJ Premixing Color
More on the Prismatic Palette by Leslie Watkins at the Art Times Journal
Edit: After reading the post and the comments, Mason student Keith Gunderson adds this:
"Thanks for an excellent post on the Mason prismatic palette."

"I might add though that although most artists that studied with Frank had these shelf boxes at the ready when they painted both plein-air and in the studio, this palette functioned more as a landscape palette, especially with a great gob of “orange value” violet as a harmony- orange value being the lowest form of light. This violet was often brushed over a dried venetian red ground and would infiltrate all the subsequent colors that were applied on top. Unfortunately this would sometime result in an overly chalky appearance in the coloration."

"The palette would be organized along a string of nine values (sometimes more)—the four upper values representing values in light, Yellow Ochre value at value 5 in the middle of the string or “the turning plane,” and the lowest four values representing shadow values. In this case, Cad Orange was the lowest value of light and Cad Red was the lightest value of shadow."

"Often times artists would arrange their color strings on the shelves to mimic the progression of horizontal landscape bands, for example the control string would occupy the lowest shelf with the grey above this shelf, violet above this, blue above this, and finally the light pinks occupying the top shelf (or shelves)."

"Greens would be modulated by inserting a bit of the blue, violet or grey dollop of paint (or a combination of the three) from the value string that was the equivalent value in the vertical position above or beneath that green value on the string. As I said before, this meant that there was an abundance of white being mixed into the paint, since white was mixed into the violet, ivory black, and ultramarine blue base from which these strings were mixed."

"Parent or “vegetable “green pure ( Cadmium Yellow Lemon with a touch of Phthalo green at the value of Cad yellow medium) was scaled up two values with White and then scaled down to Ochre Value through the addition of Cobalt Blue and finally scaled down to the darkest values with the mixture of an Ultramarine Blue-Alizarin violet. Modulating these already-mixed greens with the blue, grey, and violet tint mixtures was an issue as all this modulation tended to muddy the greens."

"Often, F.V. Dumond and Mason, in an effort to keep the green’s chroma intact would use the green string unmodulated which sometimes resulted in “garish greens”. Personally, I was always amazed at how Dumond’s earlier paintings done in Paris where more subdued when compared to the “electric greens” of his more Old Lyme influence period paintings."

"Finally, the notion that greens could be modulated with their complements (reds) was never really broached, since this system sort of replaced a more truly prismatic approach as evidenced in the teaching of Gruppe and Hawthorne."

"Well, I could go on and on but I think you get the gist of all this. Having studied with Frank for many years, I was able to glean much from this approach to color, although I find it now to be limited in certain respects. Frank’s teaching was very intuitive and sometimes I think he himself was always trying new theories . I think that ultimately this approach was devised, whether in the studios of Paris or in Old Lyme, as a way to think about color and that it was less about matching the correct color and more about the emotional equivalence that color evokes in the mind of the viewer."
Thanks, Keith, for sharing all that valuable information. Check out Keith's Blog, "Classic Realism."


Eugene Arenhaus said...

Interesting arrangement. Takes the premixing approach to an extreme. (Probably way beyond extreme...)

Tom Hart said...

One of the things I love about painting is the realization that there are an almost infinite number of roads "to Rome". This approach would put me to sleep, but that's just me. It's great to have that many "keys" available, but the waste must be considerable, I'd think, unless there was some method for preserving the unused piles.

Dan said...

Reminds me of methods of arranging pastels I've seen. It seems to be typical to have each hue in a range of values in pastels.

I would tend to expect that less control would make things more interesting, and it would help one learn to mix to what one sees, keeping to a particular gamut. It would also seem to encourage a deeper understanding of color, pigments, and mixing, as well as a greater variety of choices. I'd also like to be able to work effectively with less palette space than that.

On the other hand, what Tom said is a very good thing to keep in mind: There are a vast number of different approaches to suit different individuals. It's not the approach or "system" that makes the artist.

S. Stipick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
S. Stipick said...


I am in full agreement with the "realization that there are an almost infinite number of roads" and what works for one artist might not work for another. Laying out strings is not for everyone, but for those of us that use it, we love it. I occasionally use an open palette for plein air, but even then find myself unconsciously mixing truncated value strings of the most used hues (usually sky and base foliage, aka Reilly green). The important part is that we are all heading towards the goal of creating beautiful art, regardless of the techniques used to get there. As far as waste, after a few runs with strings and string painting there is very little if any wasted paint. Certainly, no more than using an open palette.


In regards to your second paragraph, that's the bad rap string mixing has. Both methods (open and prepared) require a keen and astute understanding of value, hue, chroma, pigments, vehicle, mediums, and mixing. Neither method really facilitates that specifically, rather the artists temperament and their desire to become a competent painter. But you are correct in that the palette space required is sometimes a pain. I've developed my work arounds for tight palettes, including under extreme circumstances just using an open palette to a open/prepared hybrid. I'm not dogmatic and will use whatever I need to at a given time to solve whatever problem may arise.

Rich said...

Wow! He's dipping his brush into a rainbow!

larry said...

Tom, A few drops of oil of clove applied with an eye dropper on each pile, combined with storing the pallet in the freezer when not in use will keep the piles wet for a month. While it seems like a lot of work up front it's a technique that many illustrators have used to make the painting go faster.

larry said...

Tom, A few drops of oil of clove applied with an eye dropper on each pile, combined with storing the pallet in the freezer when not in use will keep the piles wet for a month. While it seems like a lot of work up front it's a technique that many illustrators have used to make the painting go faster.

Dan said...

Hi Shaun,

I'm a beginner, so not really qualified to comment based on experience, only based on my observations and reasoning such as they are at this point. I appreciate your sharing your point of view.

When I think about the method that seems to be described in the original post, it looks to me like a meticulous formula that involves starting with more or less the same large set of pre-mixes at the beginning of each painting session. So I imagine mixing the same set of colors over and over. It's hard to see how a person would grow in their understanding of pigments and color mixing that way. But then maybe I'm looking at it the wrong way, or maybe this is an extreme example of something that can be done more moderately and loosely. Or perhaps its best left to someone who has already mastered color.

I've tried mixing strings of values in oils when doing a monochromatic painting. This helped me to avoid getting lost with the overall value structure. The approach seemed to work rather well, but then it seems somehow different from getting a large, multi-tiered palette and consistently employing a system that's based on one big set of color mixes. I guess in my present frame of mind I feel like I'd probably want to work in a simpler and more spontaneous way.

Anyway, it's interesting to hear what different people have to say about this.


James Gurney said...

I'm grateful for the practiced insights from people experienced with this system, and the clear-headed reasoning of people looking at it from the outside. I agree that there are "many roads to Rome," and I've always advocated trying every system and see if you can use something from it.

For my own part, when I first dove into oil seriously, I was fascinated by the idea of mixing value strings in the Prismatic Palette and the Reilly system. I borrowed the basic idea, but I mix 4 or 5 values (rather than 10 or 12). And rather than mixing ALL the colors—what are you going to do with all those pinks and purples?— I mix the principal color families that I actually observe in the scene in front of me. So rather than mixing 70 or 80 or more colors, I only mix the 15 or 20 that I am sure I'm going to use most often. This economy saves time, paint, and palette space.

But overall, I highly recommend the concept of premixing value strings, because when it comes to executing painting, you're not wasting your time mixing the same colors over and over with the brush. Also, the awareness of value that these systems give you helps greatly. Value problems are the most common problems among beginners.

James Gurney said...

For anyone subscribed to these comments, I've just added a lot of detailed information at the end of the post from Mason student Keith Gunderson. Thanks, Keith!

Anonymous said...

Speaking from the perspective of an artist who endured the "whatever makes you happy, brother" philosophy in college art education of the late 60', early 70's, I can tell you I'd sure like to have had this fundamental ('prismatic palette') art foundation in those days no matter how extreme or elemental it may seem now.
Of course I recognize that's easy to say in 20-20 hindsight. I might have rebelled at the time and slept through the lectures but I'd like to think given a teacher like Frank Dumond I would have absorbed it like Mason, Pleisner, Rockwell, O'Keeffe, Benson, and a score of others.
James, you've had blog conversations of late about greens in the palette. I believe that many (including myself) are intimidated by greens and are therefore avoided. But those proficient in the Prismatic Palette have mastered the greens. Case in point the "landscape" painting you show by Dumond. Not my cup-of-tea for subject but oh my, what a masterful representation of the greens of Summer.

अर्जुन said...

Reilly was also a Dumond student, as was Rockwell, Flagg, Kinstler, Loomis, Ken Riley, Hayden Hayden…

अर्जुन said...

Dumond (1866-1951) had been teaching at the League on 57th Street for nearly four decades when Riley signed up for a figure painting class. Paris-trained at the Academie Julian with academics Gustave Boulanger (1824-1888) and Benjamin-Constant (1824-1902), DuMond was best known for meditative religious subjects, figural murals combining myth and history, and plein air landscapes done throughout New England. Not content with superficial appearances, DuMond stressed understanding the artistic significance of the landscape or human form and insisted that his students eliminate details. He often spoke of the figure as a unit engaged in an all-inclusive gesture which flowed from the tips of the fingers into the arms, shoulders, back of the neck and down the arm. He also emphasized the unity of color achieved through an analytical process of "half-tone".

"The blinding light of the sun and the dark of the deepest cave are out of reach of your palette," DuMond wrote. "The only place we can directly relate to nature is through half-tone, which mysteriously weaves in and out of everything, tying it all together. When one looks backward there seems to be some sort of half-tone that covers the whole affair and makes it acceptable."

DuMond's half-tone rested at the center of a series of greys that represent five planes of light: highlight, light, half-tone, shadow and accent. "DuMond's system was very deliberate and mathematically precise," recalls Riley. "You'd have five shades of grey, from white on one end to black at the other. This was set in line with your colors--the highest keyed, like yellow, at one end, down through the ochres to the blues and purples at the deep end of the scale."

Exercises in putting this palette of values to work consisted of model set up in dramatic lighting conditions. The goal, DuMond stressed, was to see the action of light as revealing form and to aim for the elusive essence. Riley recalls one modeling situation in which a black man wearing an Oriental costume was illuminated by candlelight. "The candle would be the supreme highlight of the painting with everything else receding into darkness, except that there might be sequins on the costume picking up light. The challenge was to handle the extremes of a small range in the upper scale, but a broad range in the muted low-key colors. It took real discipline."

Dumond's idol, according to Riley, was Frenchman Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), a follower of Ingres. Puvis, who is categorized with the Symbolist painters, was a reductivist. He arranged his nostalgic, idealized figures to create a mood of order, serenity and formal harmony characterized by decorative two-dimensionality, clear silhouettes, compressed space and subdued colors. The simplification of formal elements fundamental to Puvis' style appealed to DuMond's sense of logic. Many years later, in paintings such as Shadow [102], it would appear to have appealed to Ken Riley's logic as well.

excerpted from, "West of Camelot : The Historical Paintings of Kenneth Riley" , pp. 48,50

S. Stipick said...


Thanks for this information. Coming from the Reilly tradition your written brief provided a lot of information that I knew I was going to spend days searching the net for. I was interested in the similarities and deviations between the two ideologies. You saved me a ton of time and I greatly appreciate it. Its fascinating to see such an approach and even more interesting to compare it to a method I am familiar with.

Mixing strings, literally changed my life. It just worked for me and was just what I needed.

In General,
For conversations sake the Reilly Green I referenced was cad yellow light (5Y) or cad lemon (5Y) and viridian (Pthalo can be used also) mixed to a 5th value. From there add the 5Y to the mixed 5th value green for value 8. Add Lamp Black to the rest of the mixed 5th value green to a 2 value. Mix values 4 and 6 by adding the 8th value to the 2nd value. Sounds complicated but it is really quite easy and then string shifts from a dark lower chroma BG to a high chroma GY. This string is a starting point, which the artist then modulates using a "palette of convenience" for his or her needs. Interestingly enough this is similar to the parent green on the high end but deviates on the low end. Fascinating!

I'm always hesitant to join online conversations as the anonymous nature of the medium can often be misconstrued. I hope you did not feel that I was attacking you. I don't think you did, but I just want to make sure and let you know I wasn't and if by chance I came across as offensive, I sincerely apologize.

Back to the General Audience,
String mixing can appear overly complicated because there is a lot of "stuff" on the palette. However, I think most students and practitioners of painting will find it to be inverse once they use it. The Reilly method as it has been passed down from Aviano, Fixler, Faragasso, etc. has seen its slight modulations depending on the adopting artist. So what I am about to say is not necessarily Reilly canon, rather my understanding as it was passed onto me.

S. Stipick said...

When mixing a string, as I was taught, the goal is always to mix the correct color properties within that string, some practitioners will mix a pure string of a hue, others will mix the string with the hue shifts intact, and others a combination of both. Almost always though those strings will have to be modulated. This might be due to artistic choices, lighting changes, a hue initially mixed was slightly off, etc. Just as with an open palette, when paining representationally, if an exact match is the goal all the same principles apply. If the goal is something else then the string method also facilitates that. It is surprisingly flexible and intuitive. The benefit, is that the artist has already figured out the colors to mix ahead of time and has worked out the mixtures preemptively. This facilitates the painting process as the artist no longer has to “fiddle” with the paint on the palette as often and in some cases not at all. It also forces the artist to really learn and understand the properties of color and mixing as their time is valuable and they don't want to mix out strings more than once if they don't have to. The comparison process never ends, its just handled in slightly different and dare I say a more controlled way, than if an artist was using an open palette. As I said before, for some this is a fantastic way to work, for others it is the pits of a tedious hell. I am sure, as Mr. Gurney mentioned, there are ways to make it accessible to everyone's temperament, even if it is just truncating the strings to a few values or something else.

Lou and Dan,
If this all seems a bit much and you are not sure where to start then I might suggest, and I am going to be that guy (sorry Mr. Gurney), a workshop this upcoming Monday with Neilson Carlin. I am not going to link it as I am already overstepping, but it is an all day landscape workshop touching on this very topic, strings, using parent green/Reilly green, and is priced at $40.00. Just google Plein Air Burlington and the info will be right there. I am not going to lie this topic coming up when it did was extremely serendipitous. For the record we don't make a profit off of this, it only exists to make opportunities like this available to as many people as possible.

Thank you for your time and I hope I was of some help.

Dan said...

Shaun, no offense taken, and I appreciated learning from your insights.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I think this is something I could benefit from, if only from the therapeutic (read: slightly obsessive-compulsive) activity of mixing. I'll have to hunt down some more literature, if it's available.

Unknown said...

My take away from it was that amid all of the colors and values are some overriding principles, namely: violet=atmosphere, blue=sky, red=atmosphere, green=chlorophyll or "transmitted light" and the deep violet mixed into the "parent green"=shadow side of tree foliage. So all of the colors and values allow you to paint with those principles.

Tanya Pohrt said...

I am so grateful for this thread! The Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, CT, is organizing the exhibition "The Prismatic Palette: Frank Vincent DuMond and His Students," which will be on view June 19 to October 3, 2021." One segment of the exhibition will explore the prismatic palette method and how it has evolved over time, and various comments here have been very helpful. Thank you! Tanya Pohrt, Curator (pohrt@lymanallyn.org)