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What is a Zorn Palette?

The Zorn palette is a limited painting palette consisting of only four colors. Swedish painter Anders Zorn used this palette extensively in his work and it is still a popular palette today.

Below you will find a bit about Zorn, his palette and why you might want to try using it yourself.

Who was Anders Zorn

Anders Zorn (1860-1920) was a Swedish painter who was known for his use of a limited palette. He was primarily a portrait painter but he is also known for his nudes, a lot of which were painted outdoors.

Zorn studied at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts in Stockholm from 1875-to 1880 and became a much sought-after painter. Zorn was commissioned to paint portraits of Presidents, royalty and members of high society at the time.

He started off painting with watercolor but transitioned to oils in the late 1880s.

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Self-Portrait with Model – Anders Zorn, 1896

What is a Zorn Palette?

Anders Zorn is known for using a palette limited to four colors. In Zorn’s time the colors were yellow ochre, ivory black, vermillion and flake white or lead white. A modern-day Zorn palette replaces the vermillion with Cadmium Red Light and the flake white with Titanium White.

Although we refer to it as the Zorn palette and generally attribute its use to Anders Zorn, there is much evidence that this limited palette has been around since the 4th century and is also known as the Appelles palette.

Anders Zorn didn’t exclusively use only the colors from this simple palette. Different colors such as greens and blues are sometimes seen in his work and were found among the tubes of paint in his studio.

However, most of his portraits were done using only the four colors from this palette. An example of this is his own self-portrait shown below.

picture of a self portrait of artist Anders Zorn showing the artist wearing a cream colored fur coat and black hat and holding a cigarette.
Self – Portrait with Fur – Anders Zorn, 1915

Why Use a Limited Palette?

Why would you limit your painting to only these four colors? Well there are many good reasons to do so.

  1. First of all using a limited palette forces you to concentrate more on tonal value than the color itself to define your subject. 

This really helps the artist understand the lights and darks, highlights and shadows in a painting. It is especially helpful for a beginning artist and one of the reasons art teachers use the Zorn palette for instruction. You can read more about value in my post How to Use Value in Your Artwork.

  1. Less paint to purchase. Again this is helpful for a beginner who wants to be a little frugal on supplies but still learn new techniques and produce a beautiful painting.
  1. Achieving a harmonious color balance in a painting is easier with just four colors. The various paint combinations blend together well when there are only four base colors.
  1. Having such a limited palette gives you lots of color mixing practice rather than relying on pure pigments straight from the tube. 
painting by Anders Zorn depicting a family sitting around playing guitar and fiddle
A Musical Family – Anders Zorn, 1905

How to Create a Zorn Palette

As stated above, the Zorn palette consists of Ivory Black, Titanium White, Cad Red (or Vermillion) and Yellow Ochre. Start by putting these pure pigments on your palette.

Before you start your actual painting, I would suggest you make a color chart using various combinations of these pigments. Making a chart will help you familiarize yourself with how these pigments work together before you dive into your painting.

I was amazed at how many different tints, tones and hues were possible with just these four colors. A sampling of my color chart is below.

As you mix the pigments, make a note of what combinations you used to achieve that particular color. If you do a lot of figure paintings you may want to refer back to a color that works well and see what formula you used to achieve it.  

Many artists make a grid on canvas paper or a canvas panel with evenly spaced squares and paint swatches of their mixes in each square. You might find using a palette knife easier than a brush for this.

If you want a more in-depth look at making a color chart for this palette, Jackson’s Art has a really detailed tutorial on how to chart the various color mixes.

It’s not absolutely necessary to make a grid but it is helpful if you will be using the Zorn palette frequently. It is also a great exercise in color mixing.

Once you have some idea about the colors you want to use, you can mix them directly on your palette for painting. 

a color chart showing the various shades and tints of color that can be mixed with a Zorn palette
My abbreviated paint swatches using the Zorn Palette

How to Use a Zorn Palette

While this palette can technically be used for any painting, it is best suited to portrait painting. These limited colors can be used to mix a variety of skin tones.

Since the colors of this palette tend to be a bit dull it is a little harder to achieve a landscape. The lack of green is definitely a deterrent but a dull green can sometimes be achieved by mixing the right amount of Ivory black and yellow ochre which can work in certain landscapes.

Zorn used this palette with oil paints, but the general principle of a limited color palette using these colors can also work with watercolor, acrylics or even pastels and colored pencils.

The main thing is that you understand a bit about color theory in order to achieve the colors and values that you want. You can read more about color theory here.

You should also have some understanding of color temperature as well. The black and white are neutral or cool colors and the red and yellow are warm colors. You can read more about color temperature here.

pinterest pin showing an artist painting at an easel holding a wooden-handled brush with a text overlay saying The Zorn Palette -How it can help you with your painting
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A limited palette is a simple and intuitive method for creating color compositions that are visually stimulating, yet harmonious. The Zorn palette is just one example of a limited palette. 

You can make your own version of a limited palette using 3 or 4 colors. It is a lot of fun experimenting with a minimalistic palette to see what colors you can achieve and how you can add contrast and value without a whole array of pigments.

I hope you will give the Zorn palette a try and develop your own palette from there. Have fun!

If you have questions you can leave them in the comments below. You can also join our free Facebook group, Trembeling Art Creative Corner, where you can ask questions, post your work and get to know some fantastic artists from all genres and skill levels. 😊

Digital signature Marilyn with butterfly

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