Learning the magic of Anders Zorn limited palette

Anders Leonard Zorn

The Zorn palette is named after Anders Leonard Zorn (February 18, 1860 – August 22, 1920), who was an internationally successful artist from Sweden. Best know for his portraits, domestic scenes and nudes in outdoor settings, he like John Singer Sargent and Joaquín Sorolla, are greatly admired by many realist artists today for his lively and skillful brushwork.

Zorn is also known for using a palette limited to only four colors. Although there is some disagreement over the exact number of colors on his palette it generally is believed that Zorn reduced his palette to the rather earthy colors of Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Medium, Ivory Black plus White. Some lists add Vermillion, Viridian, and/or Cerulean Blue. Wherever the truth lies the palette is far more limited in color range than most artists use. Me? I normally use 19 colors.

Why Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Medium, Ivory Black. They are an earthy version of the basic primary pigment colors Yellow, Red and Blue. Yellow Ochre is earthy but still mixes with red and black to create some very pleasant warm orange hues and cool green hues respectively. Cadmium Red is rich and warm. Ivory Black is cool and acts like very deep blue.

Curious about just what happens when you work with such a palette, I tried a little exercise borrowed from Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting by Richard Schmid. I created a color chart of the most basic Zorn palette: Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Medium, Ivory Black and Titanium White. I had done this exercise with my full palette before and learned more about color mixing than any other exercise I know of. It beats blind experimentation hands down. (NOTE: This exercise is a variation on Schmid’s color chart exercise. You should by his book, Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting and follow his instructions if you are going to make a chart for your full palette.)

This exercise involves creating a color chart where the basic Zorn Palette of Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, and Ivory Black are systematically mixed from full saturated color to a barely tinted white. The resulting chart shows the remarkable range of colors you can get from this basic palette. I also discovered the beautifully harmonious color combination that is created by limiting your color choices.

STEP 1: Draw the Grid

On a 16 x 12 canvas panel I drew a grid of 1-inch squares, 12 across and 10 down.

STEP 2: Mask the Grid

Using house painter’s masking cut in 1/4 inch wide strips to mask the edges of 10 rows and 12 columns of squares where mixed colors will go.

 

STEP 2: Mixing and Painting the Grid – Here is where the fun happens

Using a small palette knife (you can use a brush) I painted in the grid.

Top Row: Colors straight out of the tube, either pure or mixed with another pigment – but no white.

Next Four Rows: Mix white with the color in the top each column to create a progressively lighter value of that color. The percentage is an approximate value. The point is to show a gradual but clear difference from the pure color to a light tint of that same color.

Bottom Five Rows: I added a trace of the color that was not mixed in upper half of the chart. So where Yellow Ochre and Red are mixed I added to trace of Ivory Black – enough to see a shift in saturation without overwhelming the original mixture. The idea here was to see what kind of color shift from warm to cool happens when a trace of the third color is added.

Zorn Basic Color Chart

TIP 1: Mix One Column At A Time.

Mix a large puddle of pure colors first and divide it into five smaller puddles. Then add white to each puddle to create the gradually lighter mixes. After those colors are painted on the grid, add the third, trace color, to each mixture to use in the lower half of the column.

TIP 2: Keep Your Palette Clean

Clean your palette after you finish each column to keep your colors clean.

 

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47 Comments

  1. Colleen Brown
    April 23, 2010

    Great information Michael. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  2. Julia Lundman
    April 27, 2010

    This is really great! I may make my own charts. I’ve done the Schmid charts but am interested in expanding. It is interesting to compare the colors between artists’ charts, I would think.

    Reply
  3. jeff
    May 27, 2010

    Nice charts, and great description of the process. There is some question how much Zorn used this palette given he had a lot of tubes of Cobalt Blue in his studio at the time of his death. But, that’s neither here or there, I think this is a great exercise.

    It’s interesting to note that Sorolla had tow completly different palettes, one for the studio and one for outdoors. Maybe Zorn did the same thing.

    Reply
    • Andrew Tozer
      October 3, 2013

      Wow…so you know what Sorollas outside pallette consisted of?

      Reply
  4. Ben Hengst
    June 7, 2010

    I know it doesn’t follow the palette exactly but try a Cold Black or Blue Black (Don’t think Graham makes one but most other companies do). It adds a little extra coolness to the palette without adding a true blue.

    Reply
  5. murat güneyligil
    June 13, 2010

    HOW BLACK DOES NOT MİKE THE COLORS DİRTY?

    Reply
  6. Michael Lynn Adams
    June 16, 2010

    Murat… That is the wonder of the Zorn pallette. Ivory Black is wonderful, cool black that tints other colors with a slightly blue tone. Ben’s comment gives you an additional hint at using black and a blue primary color.

    Painting with this palette is challenging. A successful result is very harmonious and unified, but lacks truly saturated colors except for the red, of course.

    Reply
  7. Julie
    June 30, 2010

    Looking at Zorn’s paintings I don’t see blue used, just a very light grayish blue that could easily be the Ivory Black and white mixed…amazing his rich colors with such a small palette!

    Reply
  8. Carol MacDonald
    July 24, 2010

    Thank-you, thank-you for sharing this great exercise! Your instructions are wonderful, along with the photos.
    I have just painted a rose with the Zorn palette named above. Although my structure was good, the rose turned out far too grayed and had no life. Bringing it back to life was a real challenge as I didn’t understand the possibilities of the mixed colours available. Had I known of this exercise first, I could have painted the rose with a lot more confidence, knowledge, and with greater speed.
    You have inspired me :)

    Reply
  9. Carol MacDonald
    July 29, 2010

    HELP – I’m confused about the column of pure red. In the bottom 5 blocks, I’ve added the trace of yellow, and get a bright toned colour. Your colours look like there is black in them. Is there?
    Carol MacDonald

    Reply
  10. Michael Lynn Adams
    July 29, 2010

    Carol, yes there is a trace if Ivory Black in the lower five. Since I had combinations of the primary colors when they were paired I wanted to see the effect that a trace of the black would be since this pallette is more about the value of light and dark than color.

    I hope you are having fun with this exercise. Happy painting.

    Reply
  11. vmslater
    August 8, 2010

    go to http://johnkilroy.com/navhub.htm to see a portrait done using a zorn palette by John Kilroy

    Reply
  12. randal mcclure
    December 2, 2010

    Michael,

    Great web site, and congratulations on your opening at Kwan Fong Gallery. I noticed you are a color chart enthusiast, and I thought I would pass along my web site in case you know someone with similar interests. http://www.colorfrontier.com I produce a set of blank chart boards that make charting a lot easier. I am not that easy to find on the web, however….. so, passing this along.

    Reply
  13. Zsoffencs
    January 1, 2011

    Great job, congratulation! We are dealing complex painting analysis in Budapest (Hungary); on the last month we got an artwork attributed to Zorn. Our job was to clear the age of the painting based on the colors, size of the pigment grains and the result of NDT analysis done by XRF (we also did xray, multispectral photos, etc…). All the colors you have mentioned are perfectly fit to his work; it was a painting from around 1890. He used vermillion, Viridian and cerulean blue (very little amount of prussian blue was also detected). Unfortunately I’m not allowed to send photos about the artwork but I can show you the result of sampling. It can be useful for artist I think. So, congratulation again for your work, it was a great help for us!

    Reply
    • Michael Lynn Adams
      January 2, 2011

      I would be very interested in seeing the results of the sampling if you can share them. There is significant disagreement – almost mythical – over the exact colors that Zorn used. The Zorn palette, or any limited palette, is a very interesting in that the limitations create new opportunities of expression.

      Reply
  14. llawrence
    January 2, 2011

    Zsoffencs, that’s interesting about the work done analyzing Zorn’s palette. Have the research results been posted online? I’d love to see them if so…

    Reply
  15. Zsoffencs
    January 2, 2011

    Thank you for your interest! We need at least 1-2 weeks the complett the research of colors. I will let you know all the results. (I also must ask the owner of the painting regarding the publication.) When the report is ready I send it to Michael Lynn Adams. It is said another painting of Zorn need to be examined soon from his late period. It will be a very interesting/usefull research to compare the palettes from his different periods.
    I’ll be very interested to know your point of you.
    You can find a blog about our work here: http://art-crime.blogspot.com/2010/12/budapest-firm-tondo-examines-paintings.html

    Reply
  16. Davinci990
    January 15, 2011

    Hello-
    I came here from a google on “alla prima”, originally from research on Haddon Sundblom.
    In my research, I also have come across the statement that the “attributing Zorn to this palette would be a mistake.” I think I found a useful clue that tends to refute this comment. I think he reduced his colors to this minimum within his first twenty years of working. In a self-portait of his mid-thirties, he allows the viewer see (at least) his studio palette in this image:
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/Sj%C3%A4lvportr%C3%A4tt_av_Anders_Zorn_1896.jpg
    I found his arrangement instructive– notice the squirt of black above each main color, look at the dragged olives and ruddy browns at his board’s far left.
    I am also surprised to read in several places, of Zorn’s white as Titanium. I was instructed that this formulation was the most recent white. More likely, wouldn’t Zorn’s have been Flake (Lead) White as Sargent used?

    Reply
  17. Zsoffencs
    January 15, 2011

    Hi, at first let me say some words about titanium white. Titanium white was discovered in 1906, but it was patented in 1916. The first artist who used titanium white was Hans Arp in 1924… (based on the result of scientific examinations)
    My opinion is that titanium white is absolutely wrong identification about the white color used by Zorn… Please look around here if you are interested in details about titanium white: http://cameo.mfa.org/materials/record.asp?key=2170&subkey=9394&Search=Search&MaterialName=titanium+white&submit.x=0&submit.y=0

    Go back to the palette. At first we need to clear the question of limited colors. Let me describe the colors on the palette from left to right. (On the bottom) left: Prussian blue (Fe) as dark greenish blue (maybe this color was sold under the name of Antwerp blue (Prussian blue and Cobalt blue) http://cameo.mfa.org/materials/record.asp?key=2170&subkey=655&Search=Search&MaterialName=antwerp+blue&submit.x=0&submit.y=0 ). On the corner you can see dark ochre as iron oxide ochre natural (Fe). The next color should be vermillion (HgS) or cadmium orange (CdS). Than yellow ochre (Fe), cadmium yellow (CdS) and lead white (basic lead Sulphate PbSO4). Than ivory black in the right corner. (one color must be mentioned at least; it is a kind of red lake. this color was used to paint skin colors like roses on the face or the translucent brownish coat wearing by the lady. We have examined hundreds of paintings from the turn of the century from European art, it is one of the most common color on the paintings.)

    Let me say some words about the relation of tube paints and limited palette at the turn of the century. Although we are talking about only few colors used by Zorn, let’s find out the components of olive green color. At the turn of the century the most common green color was Green Cinnabar, what is a special mixture of strontium chromate and Prussian blue. http://cameo.mfa.org/materials/record.asp?key=2170&subkey=9000&Search=Search&MaterialName=green+cinnabar&submit.x=0&submit.y=0 To get the olive shade lets mix this “green” with yellow ochre/cadmium yellow and a small pinch of ivory black and lead white. To get this olive green color 5 components must be mixed at least. (we mustn’t forget chrome green color what should be the 6th!)

    Reply
  18. Davinci990
    January 21, 2011

    Zsoffencs:
    Thanks for the clarification on Titanium, and on Zorn’s palette in that image. Thanks also for the generalized view on pigment choices of that era. Very instructive!
    I am puzzled by Green “Cinnabar”, but your Boston link shed some light. Interesting…

    Reply
  19. Robert Lewis' The Landscape Illuminated
    February 20, 2011

    Great job on this post. Thank you for a very useful learning tool. I love the Zorn palette.

    Reply
  20. Lorna Allan
    March 19, 2012

    Thanks Michael. Very well explained. I must try that one.

    Reply
  21. Dick
    July 27, 2012

    Thanks…Now I can Paint!!

    Reply
  22. Palette Systems | Metadrawer
    August 18, 2012

    […] Zorn palette is a very limited palette and was one of several used by Anders Zorn. It is the basis of many […]

    Reply
  23. Portraits, by Zorn | Paintings by Aline
    March 18, 2013

    […] If you want to see more, here are two links that I found useful.  The Gardner Museum website.  The Complete Works of Anders Zorn.  I also found a review of the Gardner exhibit here, and an exposition of the Zorn limited palette here. […]

    Reply
  24. Rodrigo Costa
    May 9, 2013

    Dear Friends,
    The palette depends of the kind of approach. When one is painting from life, directly, trying to catch the freshness of the model and trying to get it through spontaneous gestuality, it is not possible such palette well organized, with colors and tonalities perfectly defined. It is only possible when one is working from photograph, quietly, without pressure. When on is working from life he has to have the organized palettein his/her mind, finding totalities from the base colors —yellows; greens; blues and reds. Blak is not need, once the most beautiful blacks are achieved from mixing Ultramarine Blue+Crimson Alizarin+Burn Umber or Veridian+Crimson Alizarin+Burnt Umber. Once in the nature anything is purely black, the darkness always has its tonality, even if it is subtle, it only is need to join a bit of the tonal color to the previous mixing. And the most beautiful grays are not achieved by mixing Black and White, but by mixing complementar colors —Red and Green, for instance— and joing to them a bit of White.

    Reply
  25. Linnette Johnson
    May 12, 2013

    Very interesting. Thanks Michael.

    Reply
  26. Alexis
    May 24, 2013

    I really love this exercise, I’m doing it with mars black instead of ivory so the ochres are really lovely and green.

    The bottom rows are the trickiest for me, I can get them desaturated but getting the right amount of black mixed in so the value shift is even/consistent is a challenge! I think I’ll get better as I go along (only finished the first set of 10 rows).

    Thanks!

    Alexis

    Reply
  27. LeeAnn
    July 26, 2013

    Hi

    This is probably a silly question, but I’m confused as to how to do the bottom 5 rows (trace of black).

    At bottom left, do you add a little black to pure yellow ochre?
    Then do you gradually lighten this with white to create the four colours above this/vertically?

    etc

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Michael Lynn Adams
      July 26, 2013

      Hi Leeann,

      Yes, you are exactly right. The lower section gives you the value and hue range when all three colors are mixed. The result, of course, is a very subtle and harmonious range of hues and values. Lovely.

      Reply
  28. Carol Medford
    August 26, 2013

    Excellent exercise. Thanks very much for sharing.

    Reply
  29. Paul Austin
    December 18, 2013

    Hello! This is indeed a most excellent site. I am a self-taught artist and I am forever searching for the answers to the wonderful world of drawing and painting.
    Can you advise which mixing medium Zorn would have used?
    Many thanks
    Paul Austin

    Reply
  30. claudette
    December 18, 2013

    Thank you to Michael and all responding participants.
    I cannot wait to begin the experiment!

    Reply
  31. Zorn palette | bev byrnes
    December 19, 2013

    […] It would have been nice to do a more complete study (inspired by Michael Lynn Adams’ post here) to explore this, but I didn’t have an appropriate sized panel handy and didn’t want to […]

    Reply
  32. Bruce Marsh
    December 25, 2013

    Very interesting post!! I am hugely interested in color, but my education was in Alber’s interaction of color, and I use a limited palette of primaries and a couple of secondaries.

    Reply
  33. Bruce Marsh
    December 25, 2013

    Extremely interesting; I will try it! My color education was based on Alber’s Interaction of Color.

    Reply
  34. Matt
    January 29, 2014

    When I was learning the ropes I was taught the Zorn palette was primarily a flesh palette and not to be thought as an all intensive color combination to paint everything.I think this is where the confusion comes from when people argue about what additional colors he was using. These colors will do do quite a bit and are very effective in painting variety of skin tones. The logic being to add a color to the palette when the situation arose.

    Reply
  35. artborecences
    March 8, 2014

    Hello,

    i’m a french painter (and teacher of art). Thank’ you for this information and this very good exercise (i have just finish it ;)
    There is 25 years i’m working drawing and a few paintings. I know i’m a very bad colorist because i’m not good in gray scale (i usually start to work with yellow ocre and burnt sienna to give a sculptural construction, and after work with the colors: you can see an example of my painting work here:
    http://peintures.blogs.laclasse.com/2012/10/30/histoire-dun-tableau/
    and the final here:
    http://peintures.blogs.laclasse.com/2013/05/05/ladjoint-de-direction/ )

    I think i’m but better in drawing (i let you judge on my website:
    http://art-borescences.pagesperso-orange.fr/ )

    I hope this chart will help me to find a better harmony of colors. I think it’s very good to learn the construction directly by these values. I will try.

    Thank’s a lot… and excuse me for my so bad english ;)
    I hope you’ll understand what i’m trying to say ;)

    Reply
  36. artborecences
    March 8, 2014

    I forget to say if you do this exercise to paint first “colors straight out of the tube, either pure or mixed with another pigment” but after, start from the white to add the mixing colors.
    I think it’s very important to start from the clearest to the darkest.
    And you’ll use less colors.

    Reply
  37. Janice Tanton
    April 10, 2014

    Beautifully written and simple to follow. Thank you! Now, I’m interested in knowing the brand of pigments you are using, as I’ve found some pretty wide differences say between….Gamblin and M Graham, etc. Thank you!

    Reply
  38. David McHolm
    June 5, 2014

    I’m coming back to look again, got here by searching for zorn palette.

    Great answer, I am going to do it for sure. Got the Schmid book too!

    Reply
    • Bruce Marsh
      July 8, 2014

      Zorn’s palette is sorely lacking in Blue! I use 6 colors…to cover the spectrum…Cad Yellow, Cad Red Light, Aliz Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, THalo Blue and Titanium White.

      I am always amazed at painters who have a box of 10 or 20 colors…why??

      Bruce.

      Reply
      • leeann
        July 8, 2014

        I used blue black instead of ivory black and that helped with the blues.

        Reply
        • Bruce Marsh
          July 8, 2014

          Even with Ivory black the blue range will be VERY low in saturation…Zorn could never have painted the water stuff he did without a blue.
          I really am committed to my palette. I always need to have a full spectrum available for any subject. I never use any earth colors…I think of every color I use and mix in terms of the primaries and secondaries….instead of yellow ochre I mix cad yellow with a touch of blue and red, to make a low saturated yellow.
          Incidentally; your test of Zorn’s palette is impressive in terms of it’s careful execution!! I simply tried his palette to do a small painting, and the blues were sorely lacking!
          In your color chart I see NO greens or blues or violets…tough to do any landscapes without these.
          Bruce.

          Reply
  39. Carl Becker
    June 12, 2014

    Hi Michael
    I’m a South African painter, a fan of Degas and the like. For some reason I only recently found out about Zorn – great painter, and I’ll give the limited palette a go. Thanks for the info

    Reply
  40. Bruce Marsh
    July 8, 2014

    I made a lengthy comment…but an error message says I already made it?? In brief…gotta have blue.

    Reply
  41. Benedict Moleta
    August 14, 2014

    Hi Michael,
    I don’t quite follow your procedure for the lower five squares in each column.

    For the columns containing only one pure tube colour (pure red, yellow or black), the trace colour added in the lower five squares is not actually a third colour, but only a second colour. Correct ? I.e. the first column contains pure yellow ochre, lightened by degrees with white in the next 4 squares. Then in the lower five squares, the leftover quantity of yellow ochre lightened with white is darkened by adding successive quantities of black. But since we only began with one colour (yellow ochre) the black being added is only the second colour in this mixture. Correct ?

    Secondly, perhaps I’ve misunderstood the process, but in the pure red column, if white is added incrementally to end up with a pale neutralised reddish-white, and then in the lower five squares yellow is added to this pale, neutralised reddish white, how does this eventually create a near black ?

    I’ve made additions in capital letters to your description below. I figure I must be misunderstanding something, so perhaps you could delete or correct my additions as appropriate:

    “I added a trace of the color that was not mixed in upper half of the chart. So where Yellow Ochre and Red are mixed AND THEN LIGHTENED SUCCESSIVELY WITH WHITE, I added to trace of Ivory Black TO THE LIGHTEST MIXTURE, THE ONE CONTAINING THE GREATEST AMOUNT OF WHITE – enough to see a shift in saturation without overwhelming the original mixture. The idea here was to see what kind of color shift from warm to cool happens when a trace of the third color is added.”

    “TIP 1: Mix One Column At A Time.
    Mix a large puddle of pure colors first and divide it into five smaller puddles. Then add white to each puddle to create the gradually lighter mixes. After those colors are painted on the grid, add the third, trace color, to THE REMAINDER OF EACH mixture (WHICH WILL BE VERY PALE AND NEUTRALISED WITH WHITE) to use in the lower half of the column.

    kind regards,
    Benedict Moleta

    Reply

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