Adapting Rubens' Palette for Modern Artists - A Guide to Renaissance Color Vibrancy

Few names resonate with the vibrancy and emotional depth of Peter Paul Rubens. This article embarks on a scholarly exploration of Rubens' palette, as meticulously adapted by Denman Ross, to offer modern artists a portal into the Renaissance's rich chromatic schemes. Ross's methodological approach to color, grounded in both theory and practice, serves as a bridge between past and present, providing insights into achieving the depth and intensity that define Rubens' enduring legacy. Engage with us as we unravel the nuances of this historical palette adaptation, offering a unique perspective on blending tradition with contemporary artistry.

In beginning the study of any art, we must learn what materials and terms are used correctly and what modes of expression. Then we ought to practice using the materials and terms and exercises in the different modes, following the example of the masters. This is equally true whether we propose to practice the art as a profession or wish to understand and appreciate it. Without some experience, technical knowledge, and practice, our understanding will surely be superficial and our appreciation limited.

This is how Denman Waldo Ross begins his book, On Drawing and Painting (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912). Ross was an American painter, art collector, and scholar of art history and theory. He was a professor of art at Harvard University and a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He wrote several books on art, design, and color. On Drawing and Painting, he sets forth his theory of the 'set palette.’ Set palettes arrange colors along one axis in order of tonal value from white to black and perpendicularly across this axis in color temperature—warm colors (red) on the left and cool colors (blue) on the right.

Ross describes the set palette that he says is based on the palette used by Rubens:

There is another palette, Palette 10, which should be mentioned which is not very far from being the palette which was used by Rubens and some other masters of the Renaissance. The form of this palette is shown on page 53. This palette, more than any other that I have proposed, reproduces the relation of colors and values which we see in the Spectrum. It was not, however, worked out with any particular reference to the Spectrum. It is based upon a color and value analysis of certain paintings by Rubens. In using this palette I am constantly reminded of Rubens in the way the tones come. I am reminded also of Correggio and of Turner. The descents from Yellow follow, as I have said, the value and color relations of the Spectrum, with an omission, however, of all violet tones. Violet rarely occurs in Renaissance painting. The lower tones of the palette are found in Burnt Sienna more or less mixed with a cool Green like Vert Emeraude. Below these orange and green tones comes a very dark brown, Van Dyck Brown or Cassel Earth, perhaps, which disappears in Black. The registers in Palette 10 are not repetitions of one another, but variations of the movement from Blue down to Red; variations which are so devised as to get the colors, as many as possible, to occur in the value of their highest intensities and in those intensities. Palette 10 is a palette for the lover of color.

Fig 1. Color palette arrangement, according to Denman Ross from On Drawing and Painting

There are two points of view to be taken in the matter of coloring: shall we imitate the local coloring of the objects we undertake to represent, having the highest intensity of color in the plane of the light and seeing that the color diminishes in its intensity and disappears properly in darkness, or shall we try to produce our modelling in gradations of color which will enable us to get as many colors as possible into the values of their highest intensities and in those intensities, with the idea of producing effects of light, not by values but by colors? In other words shall we produce color in the terms of light or light in the terms of color? Using Palette 9, of a neutral and three colors on page 53, we shall reproduce local colorings in different planes of light. That is to say, we shall express color in the terms of light. Using Palette 10, shown alongside of 9, on page 53, the palette which I devised in view of an analysis of the paintings of Rubens, we shall produce an effect of light in the terms of color.

Ross describes his system of organizing colors into a set palette:

On pages 209-214, at the end of the book, I have indicated a series of forty-eight palettes in which the twelve colors of the Scale of Colors are set in sequences of twelve values between the extremes of Black and White; the relation of the colors to the values being different in each palette. The color sequences of these forty-eight palettes have been obtained by regarding the twelve colors of the Scale of Colors as an interminable sequence or circuit and then taking the colors from this sequence or circuit at certain intervals. In Palette 11a and in the twelve palettes to which the number 11 has been given—11a, 11b, 11c, etc.—the colors are taken at two intervals of the fifth followed by one interval of the sixth. The twelve palettes differ merely in the relation of the twelve colors to the twelve values. In Palette 12a and in the twelve palettes of the same number, lettered a, b, c, d, etc., the colors are taken at the same intervals, but in the opposite direction or reading of the Scale of Colors. In Palette 13a and in the twelve palettes to which the number 13 has been given, the colors are taken at two intervals of the fifth followed by one of the fourth. In Palette 14a and in the twelve palettes to which the number 14 has been given, the colors are taken at two intervals of the fifth followed by one of the fourth. The intervals are the same as in the palettes numbered 13, but the colors are taken in the opposite direction or reading of the Scale of Colors.

The forty-eight palettes of twelve colors between the extremes of Black and White are not recommended for a realistic representation of objects, people and things as we see them in Nature and Life. For that purpose we must have five or more planes of light with a repetition from plane to plane of the required colors in a certain order of values. The forty-eight palettes of twelve colors in twelve values with Black and White represent the twelve colors in different values as they might occur and be observed in a single plane of light. These palettes are, therefore, proposed as different color-schemes and are intended, particularly, to serve the purposes of the painter in Pure Design. They are serviceable, also, in Representation, when the representation is in the mode of Outlines and Flat Tones, when there is no modelling of forms and no attempt to produce realistic effects of light and color. They are serviceable, also, in Representation, when the modelling of the forms is in very low relief, as it is in early Florentine painting. We have in each palette light colors and dark colors, but no repetition of any color or colors in the different planes or registers. We have in each palette four planes of light with three colors in each plane. In using these palettes the distinction of planes or registers should be maintained. There should be no mixture of the tones of different registers.

The value of these palettes of-twelve colors in twelve values with Black and White lies in the fact that they give the designer a keyboard of fourteen tones. Upon this keyboard he ought to be able to think out his contrasts and produce his repetitions, sequences, and balances without difficulty. It is a great advantage for the designer when he has a few definite tones which he can see before him upon his palette and a few simple rules for mixing them which he understands and obeys. The value of these palettes lies in their several limitations and the possibility of definite thinking which they afford. They are modes in which the imagination becomes active and creative, just as it becomes active and creative in the modes of musical composition, when we think in the sounds of the musical scale and of its several keys and according to the rules of Counterpoint or of Harmony.

The great value of these set-palettes which I have described will be found in the habit of exact and definite thinking in tone-relations which their use implies and in the possibility which they offer of achieving a consistency in tone-relations and effects impossible to achieve without them. The use of set-palettes was universal with the great masters of the Renaissance and it has persisted almost to the present time; but nobody uses them now. The painter who is accustomed to the lawless methods of modern impressionism is sure to object to the use of these set-palettes as an obstacle in the way of a direct and accurate expression of personal feeling or emotion. I remember the young painter who said to me that he went home and tried to use a set-palette according to my directions and he soon found that he could not do anything with it: it checked his impulses and prevented anything like spontaneity. He had spent a whole afternoon(!) in discovering that the set-palette was an obstacle, not an aid to expression. He then gave it up. When the painter has given the set palette a fair trial, when he has used it for some time, some months or some years, when he has used it properly, following the rules conscientiously, when he is able to use the palette and follow the rules without thinking about them, he will find that the palette offers no obstacle at all to the expression of his thought but is an aid and even a stimulus. He will be able to think definitely in tone-relations and to express himself accurately as never before, thanks to the limitation of his palette. It is only in the beginning, when the painter is not at all familiar with the set-palette, does not understand it and does not know how to use it, and forgets its rules or is trying to remember them, that expression seems difficult if not impossible. We have all had the same experience in the study of a language. At first it is an obstacle to expression, but when we have mastered the language we find that it does not hinder but helps us. The painter has in the set-palette what the musician has in his instrument, in the Musical Scale and its different keys or tone-systems. To produce the tones of the set-palette in the first place and then to get consistent and beautiful results from it is an art in itself, no less difficult than learning to tune a violin and to play upon it in different keys. Nobody learns to play on the violin without the help of a master and without years of technical exercises and practice. So it is in painting. The use of the set-palette is equally difficult. It is an art in itself; an art acquired by scientific instruction and by years of hard work.

This is not a palette based on historic equivalency to the pigments used by Rubens, but rather Rubens' palette using modern pigments from a modern viewpoint. Ross assigns RO to burnt Sienna, GB to chrome oxide (Verte Emeraude or chrome oxide dihydrate, Colour Index Pigment Green 18, 77289), and the other color notations with high-intensity pigments as follows:

By Red I mean the only positive color which shows no element of Yellow or of Blue. It is the color which we often describe by the word Crimson. It is produced by the mixture of Rose Madder and Vermilion. By Yellow I mean the only positive color which shows no element either of Red or Blue. It is the color of the primrose, which may be produced by the pigment Aureolin with a very little Vert Emeraude. By Blue I mean the only positive color which shows no element either of Yellow or of Red. Blue is seen in a clear sky after rain and in the pigment Cobalt. By Orange I mean a positive color showing equal elements of Red and Yellow. By Green I mean a positive color showing equal elements of Yellow and of Blue. By Violet I mean a positive color showing equal elements of Blue and Red. (emphasis author)

It would be interesting to attempt to reproduce Rubens' painting using this palette rather than the actual pigments he used. However, it would be easier to use a palette with his pigments and tints set in the manner described in Roger de Piles' book Les Éléments de Peinture Pratique.

For more information about the colors used by Rubens, please read Old Masters Palette: Mastering Colors with Rubens' Historic Palette.


Denman Waldo Ross, On Drawing and Painting, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912. 52–54.

Roger de Piles, Les Éléments de Peinture Pratique, Jombert, 1766.