Zorn Limited Palette

Andres Zorn

The Zorn limited palette is named after renowned Swedish artist Anders Leonard Zorn (February 18, 1860 – August 22, 1920). 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 just 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 today.

Why Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Medium, and Ivory Black? They are an earthy version of the 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 what happens when you work with a bare bones 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 using the basic Zorn palette of Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Medium, Ivory Black and Titanium White.

Instructions for creating a Zorn limited palette grid
This exercise involves creating a color chart where the basic Zorn limited palette of Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, and Ivory Black are systematically mixed from fully saturated hue to barely tinted white. The resulting chart demonstrates the remarkable range of colors you can get from this basic palette. I also discovered the beautifully harmonious color combinations that are created by using this palette.

STEP 1: Draw the Grid

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

STEP 2: Mask the Grid
Using house painter’s masking tape cut into 1/4 inch wide strips, mask the edges of the 10 rows and 12 columns creating squares in which mixed colors will go.

STEP 3: Mixing and Painting the Grid

This is where the fun begins!

Using a small palette knife or brush, paint the grid with the colors mixed as follows.

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Zorn limited palette grid by Michael Lynn Adams
Click the chart to enlarge. You may save the large image for reference.

Top Row:
Colors straight out of the tube in columns 1, 5 and 9. The other mixed colors establish a base of secondary colors (oranges, purples and greens), by mixing sets of two primaries each – Yellow & Red; Red & Black; Black & Yellow – in the ratios noted on the Zorn limited palette chart. Do not add white to the first row.

Next Four Rows:
Mix white with the color at the top each column. The objective is to create a 5-stage progressively lighter value of each top row color. Listed on the left side of the guide is the approximate percentage of the top row color mixed with pure white for each row. Your goal is to create a gradual but clear series from the pure color to a light tint of that same color.

Bottom Five Rows:
Here you explore the tertiary colors. When using this limited palette the tertiary color are mostly in the brown to pink family. You will also discover some lovely flesh tones. The progression is the same as the upper grid but with the addition of a third color. In this exercise you will be adding the third color mix. For example, in the columns where Yellow Ochre and Red were mixed add a trace of Ivory Black. Carefully mix in a little pigment at a time – just enough color to see a shift in hue. You should also see the color’s temperature shifting as the third color is added.


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.

Keep Your Palette and Colors Clean
Clean your palette, brush or palette knife after you finish each column to keep your colors clean.

THE ZORN PALETTE – M. Graham & Co. walnut-based oils

Yellow Ochre

Cadmium Red

Ivory Black

Titanium White


51zH2PKFFfL._SL250_Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter
Accompanying a major retrospective of Anders Zorn’s work, this is the first volume in English to explore the Swedish Impressionist’s entire career in depth. Anders Zorn (1860–1920) is one of Sweden’s most accomplished and beloved artists.

51xEBTnp1DL._SY436_BO1,204,203,200_Alla Prima II Everything I Know about Painting–And More
this book offers to the artist and art lover alike the wisdom and technical savvy which comes from a classical education and a lifetime of painting and teaching. Writing as an acknowledged master, Richard gracefully leads his reader through the subtleties of painting theory and technique with refreshing directness and unmatched technical authority.

Alla Prima II CompanionAlla Prima II Companion: Richard Schmid’s Materials, Tools and Techniques
Richard Schmid’s Materials, Tools and Techniques – By Katie Swatland. The path to creating great works of art begins with knowing the capabilities of your materials and tools.Contained within the pages of this book are detailed descriptions of the processes that go into the creation of a painting.

Sorolla - The MasterworksSorolla: The Masterworks
A new survey of the best works by the elusive and spectacular Spanish Impressionist Joaquín Sorolla. Often compared to his contemporary, the American artist John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923) was a master draftsman and painter of landscapes, formal portraits, and monumental, historically themed canvases.

The Art SpiritThe Art Spirit by Robert Henri
“Art when really understood is the province of every human being.” So begins The Art Spirit, the collected words, teachings, and wisdom of innovative artist and beloved teacher Robert Henri. Henri, who painted in the Realist style and was a founding member of the Ashcan School, was known for his belief in interactive nature of creativity and inspiration, and the enduring power of art.



57 thoughts on “Zorn Limited Palette

  1. Natalie I Delgado says:

    Can you please explain the percentages and what they are in relation to on the bottom half of the palette? Thank you so much for your help!

    • Michael Lynn Adams says:

      Hi Natalie. The percentages refer to the ratio of a given color mixture to white. The first row contains pure color mixtures (100%) without white. The second row has 3 parts (75%) color mixture plus 1 part (25%) white and so forth. The 5% row has predominantly white with a small amount of the color mixture. The rows in the bottom half have the same ratios of color mixture to white at the top half with the addition of a trace of a third color. In essence, the upper half of the chart contains a limited-pallette version of primary colors (yellow, red, and blue) and secondary colors (oranges, greens, and violets). The lower half contains a representation of tertiary color (browns and grays). I hope that helps.

  2. Martin Shellabarger says:

    When mixing colors, especially for color charts, it is much easier to start with the lightest tint and continue to add the darker color until the sequence is finished. You just need a very little bit of the darker color, usually. Unless you are very experienced with mixing colors, doing the opposite will often result in huge piles of the final tint as you find you need to add more and more white to lighten the base color enough.

    • Michael Lynn Adams says:

      Thank you so much for your insight Martin. I also find dividing the base color/mixture into five piles before adding white to each helps control the amount of paint used. Mixing and adjusting all the values for a single base give the artist an opportunity to be sure that the graduation of values is properly balance before applying them to the grid.

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