Tim Ellmers, Artist
The Zorn Palette
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
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.
I played around and did some self portraits using these palettes. Both were done on different days but overall it was a fun experience. The Zorn palette really challenges the artists color mixing abilities.