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 colors on his palette it is generally 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.
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 II Everything I Know about Painting–And More 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 buy 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 hue 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.
On a 16 x 12 canvas panel I drew a grid of 1-inch squares, 12 across and 10 down.
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.
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.
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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