Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Article: Zorn Palette

Self Portrait in Red Coat
Anders Zorn

For about three months now, I have been working with a limited palette my painting teacher refers to as the Zorn Palette. For about as long, the only thing I knew about Zorn or the Palette were the colors that were used: White, Ivory black, Yellow Ocher, and either Vermilion or Cadmium Red Light or Med. I had never even seen a painting by Zorn, or if I had, I had not recognized it for what it was.

Anders Zorn was a Swedish painter, famous for his portraits of people of Delarna, Sweden and his nude figures in nature. Though what I am using is referred to as the Zorn Palette, his work is not limited to just those four colors though you can see how the palette gets its name. The high chroma reds and the low chroma blue grays all cooled by yellow and white show a mastery that most artists cannot get even with tubes of forty modern colors at their disposal. To see more of his work, I'd suggest here and here. And, as I knew next to nothing about him or his personal life until about a week ago, I'm not going to try and do his history justice. I'm just going to tell you to do some reading. It's quite interesting.

Now, using this palette is what I do. It may seem at first that yellow, red, black and white can't get you a wide range of colors, but it can. The Palette, as I have said, consists of just four colors and is based on a Red, Yellow and Blue scheme. The red is bright, warm Vermilion or Cad Red Lt. It can be cooled with white or tempered with black down to a wooden brown. The yellow is yellow ocher and this cool, muted yellow is perhaps the most important color for portrait painting I can think of. It can be enlivened by white, and turned into a green by black. Yellow ocher and the Cad Red Lt. can make oranges that can be turned into beautiful skin tones in light with white. Ivory black and white create the softest low chroma blue tones that are absolutely beautiful. Add a bit of vermilion to the mixture for a smoky purple, or yellow for an even lighter, cooler green. There you have it, a range of color from warm red to cool purple and a range of value from white to black.

But that isn't really what makes this palette special. You have to know about color theory to mix the colors that you need, but you also need to know enough color theory to know what colors to put next to each other. Simultaneous contrast is an effect that results in the complementary of a color being generated spontaneously. What this means is, if you take a gray square and place it in a yellow field, the gray square will take on a purple cast. If it's in an orange field, it will look blue, and in red, it will look green. And vice a versa for all of these. If you mix a bit of blue in with the gray, and then put it on an orange field, it will look a lot more blue! By contrast, adding orange to your gray will almost negate the simultaneous contrast and turn your gray lifeless and dull if put on the exact same orange field.

Knowing this is crucial if you want to use this palette. Yes, black and white does make a gray with a slightly blue cast. If you put this in a field of orange, or say, Cad Red Light, it will look even more blue, and give you even more of the color you want. If you want the smoky purple to look more purple, a field of yellow ocher will make the color purple pop!

This is also important when it comes to value. If you want to have a very white highlight, make sure the area around it is dark enough so the highlight stands out, if there is a shadowy area, keep the chroma low, and, while it's good to find darks within darks, make sure they are dark! Don't go too light! Save that for the lighted areas of your subject!

Another thing I've found is that knowing about optical blending is important. What is that you ask? Think of Seurat and Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte. By using dots of pure yellow and blue pigment next to each other, Seurat tricks our eye into seeing green. With small dots of red and orange, the green is muted even with these high key colors. This helps when I want a more intense green in this palette. By using dots of pure blue and yellow ocher inlaid with my yellow/black green, the green looks brighter. And, if you put that green next to cad red light... or a brown if your green is lighter... wow! It's amazing what it can look like. I did this in my Chakra Stone picture. The green moss agate is blue and yellow ocher and green, with a bit of cad red in the yellow stone right next to it. Plus it's on that yellow red card. I slightly modified the colors around each of the stones. While it looks mostly like a solid color, it is anything but!

The best thing about this palette is that it's perfect for figure work from life. I like it because I don't have to remember a bunch of reds and yellows and their properties and what happens if I mix this red with white, or this red, or this black or this color and so on. There are four tubes of paint, and it isn't an earth tone palette without a strong color. I can get amazing results and respond almost immediately to my subject. It is also easy for me to carry around. I like being able to pull out four tubes of paint, a metal can of odorless spirits and a shellacked card and painting straight from life just about anywhere. Of course I could just do everything the normal way and carry around watercolors. This palette also makes you think. Painting under the worst of circumstances is still an act of thought, but this really helps to internalize color theory and makes you stretch to solve problems.

The obvious problem is that there is no blue. It's possible to do a landscape, but it is hard with this palette. I modify this palette slightly when I have high keyed blue objects or a spring landscape in front of me. I might also switch my ocher with a more modern zinc yellow. The greens I can mix with that and black are perfect for landscape.

While the lack of certain colors can be seen as a problem, the ease with which the palette can be modified by a sensitive artist really makes up for this slight flaw. The only other flaw is that none of the colors are good for glazing. The red, yellow, and white are opaque and horrible glazing colors and black would just serve to give a Caravaggio like effect, but wouldn't be good for helping with warm/cool color modulation. I've seen people go back in with burnt sienna and glaze that way, and it really is very beautiful. I'm still working with wet into wet ideas, but I love what can be done.

If you have any questions, or would like to post a link to a piece you've done with this palette, or another similar one, please do! I've just started working with it and I'd love conversation on it, or examples of what can be done, or to see your process and answer whatever questions I can.

Also, I've been selling some of my paintings on eBay, please see which paintings I have for sale here!


Jeff said...

Hi Ally!

I just found your blog searching for some info on the zorn palette- thanks for posting this!

I'm interested in your teacher, do they have a website/ blog- it's great they are teaching you this, could you post more notes / stuff from class you are learning?

I spend a lot of time on the cennini forum, you should check it out, soooo much to learn there!:)

Keep Up The Great Work,

Ally said...

Hey Jeff!

I'm glad you found my blog, I was hoping it and the article would be useful.

Neither teacher, unfortunately, has any sort of web presence (That I know of, and I have been searching. I guess I could just ask, but that might be too easy ;))

I'm actually hoping to start doing many more articles and posting notes on what they teach, but I haven't been able to do much of anything since I just started a job and everyone else decided to quit or get sick. Things have slowed down a bit though, so I plan to start doing much more after I get these last eight commissions done. (It's not really a lot! Just difficult with work.)

I've gone to the forums and bookmarked them. They look really nice! I'll give them a much more thorough perusing this weekend!

Thank you so much for your comment!

Austin Maloney said...

This article is awesome. I just read an article on Zorn and Googling his name brought me to your post. I'm also a fellow daily painter and I would love to post a link to your blog if you would reciprocate.

My Blog:

My Email:

Ally said...

Yo Austin!

I'm glad you like the article. ^_^ I'm surprised how many people find it. I thought maybe 10 artists would read it :P I was so wrong.

I went ahead and added a links sidebar for link trading and everything. (Took me long enough, eh?) Added you first thing, even before my own.


Linda Shantz said...

I also found your blog when I went looking for more info on the Zorn palette. Great article! Thanks! I'm excited to try it out!


mackb said...

Hi Ally, I just stumbled upon this site through google, while looking up Zorn palettes, and my, what a find. You are knowledgable adn a great painter to boot.

I am part of another Blog on this server, called, ironically enough, paint a day group. A few of us are trying to something daily or at least weekly. Our latest challenge was to do something using a Zorn palette.

Your work is impressive and your articles informative. Thankyou.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the interesting article on Zorns palette. heading off to the main page to read sme more.

bj said...

I used the red/yellow/black/white palette early in my painting life. You can see it here: vcv
It was a challenge since I was just beginning to paint, but I learned a lot.

Don Rogers said...

hi Ally,
I sure enjoyed your article, I use a similar limited palette and now I fel inspired to use this one now! So whao are your teachers? Your paintings are looking good - sell a bunch!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks for the great article on the Zorn palette...I googled it, got you and found all I needed to know. Keep up the great work-and thanks for the inpiration!

ali özhan güneş said...

Thanks for sharing this article, some days ago ı need this information and ı found u blog, thanks so much.

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very helpful insights. thanks for sharing =)

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KennethAlmasy said...

this peticular palette is truly exciting. a great deal of time is spent amassed in such splendor. =]

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