Many of my students ask me, "what is this palette that you are teaching me?" To which I reply "a palette that my teacher's teacher's teacher developed some time ago long before you and I were born." Of course this explanation fetches some curious looks, but in truth, the palette has been handed down through the generations from teacher to student. Fortunately it was handed down to me and happily I am handing it down to a future generation of aspiring artists.
At first glance, the prismatic palette appears to be of a complex nature with many colors. As shown above it proffers an array of a multitude of manufactured and premixed colors laid out in strings according to values. The top string of colors are manufactured pigments ranging from white, yellow, orange, red, blue, and black. The rest of the palette is comprised of pre-mixed colors in eight equal steps of light gray to dark gray, eight equal steps of light blue to dark blue and eight equal steps of light yellow green to dark neutral green. When I first started painting I was immediately introduced to the palette and to be quite frank, I was unsure as to how to use it. But when it was explained to me that the steps correlate to the values seen outdoors was I then able to begin to understand the palette. Perhaps you are wondering about the steps and their usage, therefore allow me to briefly explain. Mind you I will only be chipping at the surface of an iceberg of information.
Looking at the palette identify the first several light steps be it within the gray, blue or green string. These light steps will fall immediately below the yellow colors on the top row. In theory, the first several steps could be utilized to convey flat plane sunlight and upright sunlight values. These light values are also known as "high key." Now locate the darker steps located immediately beneath the red colors. In theory, these steps could be utilized to convey flat plane shadow and upright shadow values. These darker values are also known as "low key." Those steps that lay between the "high key" and "low key" are known as the "middle key" and can be used in proximity to the lights or shadows and even perhaps worked into the light or shadow values. Often times when teaching my students the palette, I use the analogy of a music scale. There are notes and octaves. Individual steps are likened to notes. The "high key" is comparable to the octave above middle C, the "middle key" is comparable to middle C and the "low key" is comparable to the octave below middle C. In essence, the palette is set up in such a way to facilitate the student to target the steps thus giving the student the advantage of studying not only the appropriate controlled color values but also the key of a picture.
Perhaps aside from values one of the most important lessons that I try to impress upon my students is the study of prismatic light. Frank Vincent DuMond was purported to have said, "Silently glowing over this whole landscape is a rainbow. You must learn to see it. It is there always, and if you can get hold of that, you have something worth going after." Essentially he is saying that for the keen eye of the artist, the colors of the rainbow are everywhere and it is our job to find them and use them. And believe me, the colors are there.
Another truly exciting facet of the DuMond palette is its ability to aid the artist to create atmospheric prismatic paintings. I could go on further to elaborate however in order for one to truly comprehend and appreciate the beauty of the palette one really should study it under the guidance of a painting teacher who is knowledgeable of DuMond's painting principles and theories.
In summary, I have found the palette to be a great tool because it helps to simplify the understanding of value and color relationships especially for those new students studying landscape painting. The palette may seem like a formula however it is not but instead offers controls where a student can start and return to as needed. Those of us who study this palette are very fortunate to be bestowed with such a gift.