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
- 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.