The Zorn Palette

I first heard of the “Zorn” palette through one of our area art clubs. Our HFAA group recently put on a portrait-drawing workshop, and the instructor taught the principles of using this limited palette. I didn’t attend the workshop since portrait-drawing isn’t one of my areas of interest, but I’m always eager to learn more about colors and how to use them, so I was delighted to discuss this palette with members after the workshop.

What is the “Zorn” palette? Quite simply, it’s a limited color palette that was used by Swedish artist Anders Zorn. It consists of only four pigments:

  • Yellow ochre
  • Vermillion
  • Ivory Black
  • Titanium White

First, I think it’s fairly easy to see how this color palette could be useful in portraiture. The focus in a portrait is on skin tones, and this palette makes me think back to a very simple rhyme I learned when I was playing around with portrait drawing and painting:

“Red and yellow, brown and white, this is how we make our skin tones right.”

The obvious difference between this color “formula” and that of Anders Zorn is the substitution of black for brown.

Here, as an example is a self-portrait Zorn painted.

Anders Zorn – Self-Portrait with Furs

Zorn was a noted portrait artist, and it seems he did use this limited color palette in his work. Yet others say that the “Zorn palette” is a bit of a myth because the man also painted works with a much broader range of colors.

His 1893 painting “In the Woods” uses a much different color palette.

In the Woods – Anders Zorn

I can appreciate both of these paintings. I see the artistry in both. If I had to choose a preference between them, I’d likely go with the more colorful “woods” painting. I love the greens and yellows.

The Zorn palette is definitely not designed for landscape painting. That didn’t stop me, however, from trying it out in a recent oil pastel landscape scene. This was purely experimental. I used four pastels from my Gallery set:

  • Carmine
  • Ochre
  • Black
  • White

These hues aren’t quite as specific as those suggested in the Zorn palette, but they seemed good approximations to me. I painted this scene on Strathmore pastel paper, and I’m learning that I don’t care for quite so much “tooth” for my oil pastels. I did only a small amount of blending here.

Although I can’t say this is a favorite color scheme for me, I will say that I actually liked the results much better than I thought I would. It’s different, quite unlike most landscape paintings.

As I read more and learned more about the Zorn palette, I became quite intrigued by it. It “works” in painting because it forms its own set of primaries. The vermillion (or cadmium red light used by many contemporary “Zorn-palette” artists) is definitely red. The yellow ochre serves as yellow. Ivory black is actually very blue-based, so it is used as blue. The titanium white (as well as the black) is used for creating various values.

I found this interesting chart online to show the different hues that can be created from the colors of the Zorn palette.

Zorn Palette Hues

The greatest weakness in this palette, of course, is the lack of a true blue. This makes it difficult to create any greens, and this means that landscape painters generally aren’t interested in working with Zorn’s limitations.

Dan Scott from Draw Paint Academy points out, however, that art instructors often teach this limited palette — for very good reason.

Many art teachers (such as Jeff Watts of Watts Atelier) have found the Zorn palette to be a great learning tool for students, as it limits the number of possible decisions but allows a wide-enough gamut of colors to create a stunning painting. The general idea is that a student should start with a monochrome palette (no color), then progress to the Zorn palette, then finally to more complex color palettes.

When painting with such a limited palette of colors, you must really learn how to utilize value rather than color to emphasize form. Value is thought to be the most important element of color, so it is important that you have a firm understanding of it before you try to handle more complex color palettes. From – Dan Scott “The Zorn Palette“.

I feel that this could be a great learning tool, and I know that — for me — limiting the number of possible decisions is a huge plus factor. I do want to work more on using values in my oil painting — both with my oils and my oil pastels — and it’s interesting to see what I can do with this very limited palette. It might lead to a few unusual-looking landscapes, so don’t be surprised by anything you see coming up in future posts.



    1. I’ve been learning a lot more about color theory recently, so knowing more about limited palettes is especially helpful for me right now.


      1. I love that there’s a thing called color theory. You probably already know this but color as a symbol is one of the first recognizable symbols given to humanity. I’d guess gender is another.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Interesting! There are so many different symbolic interpretations for various colors that sometimes it can get a little overwhelming. It’s another fascinating area of study, for sure.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Odd Nerdrum says one should use only the Apelles palette with those four colours. Frankly, I don’t think the process of making art should be limited. On the contrary, the search…basic for creating art…requires experimentation and not limitation. But each artist works in his own way and with the palette he feels comfortable with. Good post with good information. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I go back and forth on the ideas of “limited palettes” and “unlimited colors”. I like both, of course. Sometimes I think limiting our palette creates better color harmony, but we can create good color harmony with more colors, too. I definitely agree that experimentation is usually more beneficial than limitation! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Always a pleasure Judith. I find that it is important to create these discussions about art, among artists and among art lovers and collectors as well. I truly think everybody loves art. All you have to do is go to a museum and you will find many there queuing. All the best to you.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this insightful article, Judith. Yes, I really enjoyed reading it. The paintings you chose as examples show the results of color theory very well.
    Judith, have a wonderful sunday creating and enjoying life! 🌞 🐞🌷
    Rosie from Germany

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Rose. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. We’ve got a busy — but fun — day planned with friends and family. I’m going to try to get a little “art time” in this morning. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello! I am new to visiting your sight. I love art, and Abstract is my favorite, but I am self taught. I enjoyed reading your article. Thank you for sharing these wonderful paintings. I will be visiting again. Have a great artistic day. Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

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