The Zorn Palette – What It Is and How You Can Use It

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The Zorn palette refers to a palette of colors attributed to the great Swedish artist Anders Zorn (18 February 1860 – 22 August 1920). It consists of just 4 colors yellow ochre, ivory black, vermilion, and titanium white. Cadmium red light is commonly used in place of vermilion by modern-day artists.

Whilst this may seem like an extremely limited range of colors, Zorn demonstrated through his paintings just what is possible with such a limited palette. In this post, I cover:

Here are some of his paintings that appear to utilize the Zorn palette:

Anders Zorn, A Portrait of the Daughters of Ramón Subercaseaux, 1892
Anders Zorn, A Portrait of the Daughters of Ramón Subercaseaux, 1892
Anders Zorn, Self Portrait With Fur, 1915
Anders Zorn, Self Portrait With Fur, 1915

How Does the Zorn Palette Work?

The Zorn palette works as follows:

  • White and black can be used for changes in value.
  • Ivory black is a relatively cool black and can be used as a very dark substitute for blue. In a very narrow sense, you can think of yellow ochre, cadmium red light and ivory black as a version of the primary colors.
  • Cadmium red light is the most saturated color on the palette. Outside of that, the Zorn palette does not excel in vivid colors.

Below is a color chart demonstrating the gamut of possible colors with the Zorn palette. The lack of blue seems to be the biggest limitation. The closest thing to blue is a cool gray. My first thought about this gamut of colors is that it would be perfect for capturing all the subtle skin tones in portraiture, but not so much for capturing the wide range of colors needed in landscape painting. This makes sense as Zorn was one of the most acclaimed portrait painters of his era.

Is The Zorn Palette A Myth?

Some academics have questioned the existence of the Zorn palette, drawing attention to:

  • The obvious use of blue and green in some of his paintings.
  • The tubes of paint left by Zorn in his studio which is said to have included 17 tubes of cobalt blue.

But all this really proves is that he did not strictly use the Zorn palette in every painting.

Anders Zorn, In The Woods, 1893
Anders Zorn, In The Woods, 1893

The tubes of paint left by Zorn have little meaning. I personally have tubes of paint in my studio which I have not touched in years. You would not be able to determine what palette of colors I prefer to use based on the tubes of paint which are currently in my studio. We all have those colors which seemed like they would be useful, but only end up gathering dust.

But there is a lot of evidence which suggests that he did frequently use the Zorn palette.

First, his actual palettes which are kept in museums indicate a favorable use of the 4 colors. There are hints of some other colors, like what appears to be cadmium yellow and viridian green, but the 4 Zorn palette colors hold much more prominent positions.

Zorn Palette

Second, there is this self-portrait which shows him painting with the Zorn palette.

Anders Zorn, Self Portrait With Model, 1896
Anders Zorn, Self Portrait With Model, 1896

Why Would You Use the Zorn Palette?

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.

(See the supplies page for details about what I use and recommend.)

The Cons of the Zorn Palette

There are obviously some significant limitations of the Zorn palette, such as:

  • There is no blue, so you are missing out on a wide gamut of colors. The closest thing to blue with this palette is a cool gray which you can get from mixing ivory black with titanium white.
  • You are not able to mix saturated greens or purples.
  • The color saturation of the palette is generally very dull, so you need to work mostly with browns and grays.
  • It is not overly suitable for landscape painting due to the lack of color. Instead, the Zorn palette seems to be more suitable for portraits.

Want to Learn More?

You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.

Thanks for Reading!

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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46 comments on “The Zorn Palette – What It Is and How You Can Use It”

    • A very interesting and wonderful informations for the Zorn palette, it is a good step for drawing and uses of colours, before graduating to finding ones own preferences in style, media used and colour.
      Lots of thanks
      With regard
      “Prabhu”

      Reply
  1. A very interesting article on the Zorn palette, what a good step from drawing into the use of colour, before graduating to finding ones own preferences in style, media used and colour. Regards Hazel

    Reply
  2. Again thank you for giving me more knowledge of oil painters and how they achieved their recognition in the art world. You keep it short enough and to the point.

    Reply
  3. Interesting stuff and made me wonder what colour palette Morandi used for all those jugs, pots and vases! Really enjoy your posts, look forward to them for the help and inspiration provided. Tks.

    Reply
  4. It does make you think about all of the tubes of unused paint you have and will probably never use and maybe rethink before you purchase that amazing orange, sounds good but do you need it 🙂
    very interesting article

    Reply
  5. Absolutely agree! Doing an audit of tubes the other day I realised that some were over ten years old and used maybe twice. When I think of all the lovely new subtle shades now available that “I can’t afford” it makes me ashamed?

    Reply
  6. Very much enjoyed this post. I am aware of Anders Zorn because of my Pinterest activity since I retired 2 1/2 years ago. I taught art, primarily drawing and painting, to college students for 37 years. I have over 170 boards on Pinterest for specific artists, most of whom I was not aware of because of their not being in mentioned in art history books. I was familiar with over 50 of these artists and often mentioned them to my students. Anders Zorn will now be added to my boards. Thanks for pointing out this information. James Meaders.

    Reply
  7. I did Oil Painting many years ago! But now I’m back to drawing and Acrylics, I getting to Old and running out of money, 78,
    Just a Note: I like your website
    and information a lot, thanks Maid”

    Reply
  8. Loved the article, had never heard of this artist, really like his work. I’m going to play with his color palette because I’ve always wanted to learn how to mix colors with just the primary colors. I feel I am going to learn a lot from you….every time I learn something new my husband says “another wrinkle in your brain! Thanks for your wonderful articles.

    Reply
  9. I am going to do an experiment and try to use a modified Zorn palette with my pastels. I will use several values of the 3 colors with white and use pointillism, cross hatching and other blending techniques On the painting surface. I love doing limited palette work anyway.

    Reply
  10. Very interesting article on Zorn!I remember my art professors saying do not use white or straight black.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge. As a young child I attended art school on Saturdays, the Gertrude Herbert….In one of the rooms was a large ..at least 6×10 foot oil painting of Gertrude Herbert in a deep emerald gown. I would stand before that painting in awe of the beautiful folds of color in her dress.
    Although I majored in art in college, I have gotten away from painting and drawing…When drawing, I feel so out of practice……Now retired, I’ve started back doing water colors, colored pencils, water color pencils….but I still want to pursue my love of oils….and I need to discipline myself to allow time everyday to enjoy my passion.
    Thank you I’m glad I found your site!

    Reply
  11. I am a total novice and fascinated by this article. Haven’t even bought a tube of paint yet but I am intrigued by this article. Yellow ochre, ivory black, cadmium red light, and titanium white shall be my first purchase. Thanks for your fascinating emails.

    Reply
  12. Hi, Dan, it looks as if he studied the Fayoum portraits! My favourite portraits! Also made with just ( almost)the same colors.
    I think it gives a sort of tranquility…
    Thanks for the information
    Annemieke

    Reply
  13. Just joined our art academy – hope also to get the crib sheet…..hint
    Really enjoying your blog – very informative.

    Reply
  14. I knew of the zorn palette and have done a painting using it but didn’t realize that I was using value to create form. Thank you! Now I can know that I do use value and not just color.

    Reply
  15. Dan, thanks for this. I read somewhere recently that Zorn used Lamp Black, which gives a hint of blue when mixed with a bit of white. Maybe he sometimes used Ivory Black and sometimes used Lamp Black. I’ve been working with soft pastels recently, but maybe I’ll get back into acrylics in the near future.

    Reply
  16. I know that this is a weird question, but why did they find the blue so unusual, zorn was known to play with different blacks. and in many cases (I am one of them) I was taught not to work with black out of the tube but to mix it myself using red and blue in a pinch so if he was making a soft black he may have used blue for that too.

    Reply
    • I think your theory of mixing black may working. But the use of Zorn palette is simplefy. Only use gray as cool color, and it will show as blue when it’s byside warm color. About color, everything is elatively。

      Reply
  17. I have studied the Zorn palette where Payne’s Gray doubles for black AND blue. The Payne’s Gray already contains a lot of blue, so when it is mixed with white the blue shines forth! Also, instead of Cadmium Red Light, Burnt Sienna is used for red (with white added), or brown, when Yellow Ochre and a touch of blue are added. I have also experimented with Raw Sienna instead of Yellow Ochre. I am not disputing your color choices in any way, but just suggesting that there are some worthy variations to the colors you recommend.

    Reply
  18. I am very appreciative of your articles as I am new to painting. I am also pleased that you allow comments since they alert me to what I may encounter in my new adventure. Thank you to all.

    Reply
  19. Only learned of the Zorn palette, and Andras Zorn recently. When it was first described to me I thought that sounds very like the limited palette I had to learn with when first starting out.
    After leaving art school in the early 60’s I studied with a Brisbane based (Brisbane, Qld, Australia) – with David Fowler. For oil painting we were limited to the palette ultramarine, alizarin crimson, yellow ochre and white. So when I found out about the Zorn palette I was very interested. For my part I found the principle of learning to paint with a limited palette of inestimable value. As well as it being a great way to learn colour mixing, I hold that its greatest virtue is in how it teaches you to think about colour juxtaposition; colour interrelationships – working colour off against colour.
    Case in point – the Zorn palette – blue . If limited to a “black blue”, you have to think what colours to put around the black to make it LOOK blue? THAT is working SIMULTANEOUS CONTRAST – THE MOST IMPORTANT PRINCIPLE OF ALL WHEN WORKING WITH COLOUR.
    That aside, thankyou for introducing me to Andras Zorn – definitely a master to learn from.

    Reply

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