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 being 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. Here are some of his paintings which appear to utilize the Zorn palette:
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 at 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.
I am no art historian, but in my opinion this information does not draw into question the existence of the Zorn palette. Nobody has suggested that Zorn exclusively used such a limited palette of 4 colors. In fact, it is obvious that he did not given some of his more colorful paintings.
The tubes of paint left by Zorn also 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 a cadmium yellow and viridian green, but the 4 Zorn palette colors hold much more prominent positions.
Second, there is this self portrait which shows him painting with the Zorn palette.
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 a color, so it is important that you have a firm understanding of it before you try to handle more complex color palettes.
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.
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