Zorn Palette Explained: Transform Your Art with 4 Simple Colors

zorn palette

Art Ignition is supported by its audience. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn More.

Through your exploration of painting techniques, you may have come across the Zorn Palette, or at least the concept of a “limited palette.”

In this article, we will discuss the Zorn Palette colors and how to practice and use it effectively to build your paint mixing skills.

What is the Zorn Palette, and Where Did it Come From

The Zorn Palette is a term for a limited palette of colors popularized by the Swedish artist Anders Zorn. Anders Zorn was an artist who worked in many media, such as sculpture, printmaking, watercolor, and, most famously, oil painting.

Zorn worked in a realist-impressionist style similar to that of John Singer Sargent, who was his contemporary. Zorn’s subject matter was mostly portraits, landscapes, and figures in the landscape.

Because of the limited subject matter, Zorn used a limited palette since his scenes didn’t have a lot of bright or varied colors and for the ease of transporting supplies. Zorn did much of his work outside in nature, or en Plein Air.

By using just four tube colors of Vermillion, Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, and Flake White, Zorn learned how to create various hues, colors, tints, and shades.

In the next section, we will look at some of Zorn’s works and see how such a limited palette created color harmony in his paintings and made them more natural. While the artist used other colors in some of his paintings, their use was reserved only for necessity, and he avoided more complex color palettes.

what is zorn palette?
Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon (Source)

Zorn Palette Colors Painting Examples

The images below are examples of Anders Zorn’s oil paintings using a limited palette. If you look closely, you can recognize the narrow range of colors and how unified or harmonious the paintings are as a result of minimizing the number of colors used.

the zorn palatte
Self-Portrait in Red (Source)
anders zorn's self portrait
Self-Portrait with Model (Source)
zorn palette colors examples
In My Gondola (Source)
zorn palette colors painting
William Howard Taft (Source)
zorn palette color painting examples
Summer Eve (Source)
limited palette examples
Dance in Gopsmor Cottage (Source)

Why Use a Limited Palette?

There are several advantages to using a limited palette like the Zorn Palette. However, the main two reasons are that it creates a sense of unity in a painting and causes the artist to perfect their color mixing skills.

Most painters use warm and cool versions of the primary pigment colors yellow, red, and blue and sometimes add supplemental colors. Often, these colors can create “muddy” mixtures, or the supplemental colors can look artificial or out of place.

Using only four colors, or two colors (pure yellow ochre and vermillion) and black and white, it is unlikely that any mixture of these paint colors will look out of place.

You might think of it like a string section in an orchestra. If you have violins, violas, cellos, and basses, they will sound harmonious because they are closely related. If you bring in a synthesizer, like a painter might use cobalt blue, that synthesizer will sound out of place.

Similarly, having to mix all the colors you need out of just f

why use a limited palette

our tubes, you will need to make a color chart (which we will discuss in a moment) and practice hard with how different ratios of all the possible combinations will affect the resulting mixture.

Again, with the music analogy, practicing with and making these color mixing charts not only help as a reference guide for future paintings, but the practice is like doing scales on an instrument to improve the placement accuracy of your fingers, speed, and clarity of the notes. The more you practice, the faster and better you will play and paint.

To better understand how colors affect the viewer in subtle ways and how artists can create specific moods with color, you may want to read about color theory.

What is a Color Chart, and Why Should I Make One?

A color chart is a painting surface (paper, wood, canvas, etc.) divided into squares based on how many colors you plan to work with. This chart allows you to create and record combinations of all the colors you will work with in different ratios, tints, and shades.

what is a color chart?
Color Chart Based on Zorn Palette

Making color charts allows you to learn firsthand how different colors react differently to each other and when tinted and shaded individually and in combinations.

These charts will serve as a reference for future paintings to speed up the color-matching process and save you paint by reducing ineffective mixtures that don’t create the color you desire.

Many artists have several charts for the different palettes they use. You might make one for the colors you use for portraits, a different one for landscapes, and another one yet for abstract work.

How to Mix a Color Chart with Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, Flake White, and Vermillion

For several reasons, some of the colors Zorn used are not as readily available these days. Modern artists typically substitute Cadmium Red or Cadmium Red Light for the Vermillion and Titanium White for Flake White.

how to mix color chat with ivory balck, yellow ochre, flake white and vermillion
Zorn Palette Color Chart (Source)

It is ideal to make the chart using the colors you plan to use in most paintings and the best quality paints you can afford. Cheaper paints, often labeled as “student grade,” are made with lots of fillers and may be more transparent, require more paint to achieve an appropriate mixture, and will fade quicker than “artists” or professional grade paint colors.

Tips for Mixing Colors Effectively

tips for mixing colors effectively

The physical act of mixing colors is not hard, but you can avoid some of the frustration and difficulties by following a few simple rules for how to mix colors.

  • Use a palette knife to pick up, deposit, and mix your colors. Palette knives are easy to clean and won’t retain paint particles that will contaminate the next color you dip into like a brush might.
  • Add the darker color in tiny amounts to the bigger pile of the light color. For example, tiny amounts of red should be added gradually to your titanium white; otherwise, you might add significantly more titanium white to achieve the same color and value.
  • Mix thoroughly, but don’t over-mix. When evenly mixed, you want to know what the colors will look like, but overmixing can “deaden” colors.
  • Avoid adding mediums like linseed oil unless absolutely necessary.
  • Set up your project with all the materials necessary before mixing. If you don’t have your paper towels ready when you need them, you might be less likely to clean your palette knife thoroughly if you have to stop what you are doing and search for towels.
  • Keep a journal handy so you can take notes. Some of the subtle things that happen when mixing colors are those things that can help you most in your painting and are often the things that are easily forgotten.

Materials You Will Need

materials you will need

You will need:

    • A surface: acrylic painting paper, old canvas, or wood panel (all of these should be well primed to avoid the colors soaking into the surface and becoming dull).
    • Palette knives, preferably metal.
    • Paper towels or rags for cleaning and wiping your knives.
    • Painter’s tape or other tape that won’t tear the surface you are working on.
    • Turpentine, vegetable oil, water, or some other solvent, depending on the type of paint you’re using, for cleaning knives or removing mistakes from your surface.
    • A painter’s palette or plate to put your paint blobs on and mix them.

Some optional tools include a razor blade for scraping paint off the palette, brushes for painting on the chart (this requires thorough cleaning in between each mixture), an easel for working upright, a table to hold your color palette and supplies, and a trash can for dirty towels.

How to Make the Color Chart

There are several ways to set up your chart. A common strategy is to have one column for each pure color and one for each color mixed with all the other colors in equal parts.

painting with a limited palette
Art by Aaron Westerberg

For example, using the Zorn Palette colors, you would have your yellow ochre, cadmium red, ivory black, and then yellow ochre: cadmium red mixed mixed evenly in a 1:1 ratio, red mixed with ivory black in a 1:1 ratio, and yellow ochre mixed with ivory black in a 1:1 ratio. That’s six squares, one at the top of each column.

Then, on the sides, or rows, you would add titanium white to each pure color and 1:1 color mixture in different amounts, gradually increasing the percentage of white as you move down the rows at, say, maybe 20%, 40%, 60%, and 80% titanium white proportion of the mixture.

If you want to have a detailed reference, consider having more columns with different ratios of mixtures of the pure colors. Instead of just 1:1 yellow ochre: cadmium red, you might have 1:1 yellow ochre: cadmium red, 2:1 yellow ochre: cadmium red, 2:1 cadmium red: yellow ochre, and so on.

In the example below, there are 5 additional rows. The bottom row has the colors of the top row, plus whatever color is not included in the top row (see image for explanation). Then each row above the bottom has white added in increments of 20%, 40%, 60%, and 80%.

how to make the color chart

R= Red, Y= Yellow, B= Black, W= White

Typically, artists will draw the grid on the surface in pencil and then tape off between the squares so that once each square is filled with its color combination, the tape can be removed for even squares with clean lines. Some artists prefer a natural look and omit the tape giving the chart a more organic, hand-made look.

Once you have planned the colors, color combinations, tints, and shades, you can start mixing and painting in the squares.

It is advisable to squeeze out more paint than you think you will need because the last thing you want is to re-mix a particular combination in the middle of the process. If you mix a 2:1 red: yellow and only get to the 40% added white row and don’t mix the red to yellow exactly the same as before, the rest of your tints may not match your previous ones.

Likewise, don’t squeeze out more paint than you think you can use in one sitting, as the paint may dry out if you don’t have a storage container to prevent the mixtures from drying.

How to Use This Chart to Help You Paint

After making the chart, you will have already improved your color mixing and assessing skills. But this chart can do much more for you.

how to use the zorn color chat to help you paint

When looking at a scene or photograph, you can use your chart to compare or match the color you are trying to mix with one from the appropriate column and row on your chart. Place the photograph next to the chart and move it up and down or side to side until you find the closest color mixture.

When mixing colors for a painting, you can do the same thing as with the reference photo. You can place the color chart next to the palette or hold your palette knife with the mixture up to the chart to see if what you have mixed matches the color you are aiming for.

Using the color chart can save you time and wasted paint and make your painting experience more enjoyable. This process of assessing, mixing, and matching paint colors will continue to improve your color skills. Eventually, you may find yourself relying on the chart less and less.

Challenges of Using a Limited Color Palette

One of the challenges of using such a limited color palette like the Zorn Palette is that it takes more work and focus to create the colors you might need for your painting. Creating a green without a “true” blue is difficult.

Any color mixtures requiring blue will be duller versions. Leaves of trees will have to be muted like olive greens, and achieving a purple will result in a pale, cool gray like taupe.

challenges of usisng a limited color palette

Some subject matter won’t be good candidates for the Zorn Palette. For example, painting a carnival scene with bright lights and colorful booths will not have the same intensity as using an expanded color palette.

The Zorn Palette is great for figurative work and portraits; however, landscapes should be limited to those portraying overcast days and more muted vegetation like you might find in the southwest United States.

Frequently Asked Questions

Some commonly asked questions about the Zorn Palette are answered here.

Without blue, how do I paint the sky, leaves, or violet flowers?

Some artists add a tube of blue to the Zorn Palette. Cobalt blue is a common choice since it is neutral in temperature and can satisfy the need for warm or cool mixtures. A deep blue like Ultramarine Blue would be another good choice because its warm temperature will work better with yellow ochre and cadmium red.

How do you mix skin tones with the Zorn Palette?

Skin tones vary in hues and tonal values, so this question has no simple answer. Yellow Ochre is a great yellow for skin tones because it is a muted yellow, like cadmium yellow. When mixed with white and Cadmium Red Light, you have a good base for Caucasian skin. From there, you need to play with the ratios and percentage of ivory black to match the skin tone you are trying to create.

how do you mix skin tones with the zorn palette
(Image Source)

Is the Zorn Palette only for oil paint?

No. While the Zorn Palette was used mostly for oil paintings, you can achieve similar results with watercolor, acrylic, or gouache. However, making a separate color chart for each medium would be best.

Wrapping It Up

Painting can be challenging to master all the techniques and understand the concepts.

If the Zorn Palette piques your interest, you are more than a newbie to painting. Dive deeper and check out some of these great oil painting classes for beginners to help you build your painting skills.

Like our Content?
Share It With Other Artists

Article Written By