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May 4, 2008 / pleinairman

Three-Color Oil Palette, II

In response to my last post, someone pointed out that this three-color palette is very similar to the warm palette used by Anders Zorn. I’m familiar with Zorn, but not with his palette. The commentor noted that Zorn used Yellow Ochre, Vermilion, and black and white.

I did a little research, and came up with the following in an American Artist article:

Many artists mention the concept of the “Zorn palette,” especially in regard to portraiture. This warm palette, which is often said to include simply a yellow, black, red, and a white—but no blue—may be a very useful tool, but it is a mistake to attribute it to Anders Zorn. A few portraits and other paintings by Zorn seem to show a definite warmth and a lack of tube blues and greens—and Sandström confirms that the painter was proud of saying he mixed all of the hues on a canvas from just a handful of colors—but many Zorn paintings utilize blues. In fact, in Sweden Zorn is celebrated for his depictions of water, which required blue paint. Sandström had difficulty even comprehending the assumption that Zorn worked with the specialized palette associated with him. She reports that 17 tubes of cobalt alone are represented among the 243 tubes of paint left by Zorn in his studio in Mora. Laine, of Stockholm’s Nationalmuseum, concurs that the notion of a Zorn palette is a bit of a misnomer. Still, portraits such as Miss Constance Morris show that he was adept at using grays to suggest blues. Many of Zorn’s portraits—and his nudes—exhibit a compelling warmth, providing inspiration for today’s painters regardless of what the Swedish artist may have actually squeezed onto his palette.


At any rate, I am not using blue, but I am, as Zorn may have done, trying to push the “blueness” of the Ivory Black with orange. Last night I decided to see just how far I could go. The evening light was perfect — it had lots of orange in it so I could test the idea.

Here’s the result. I love working with this palette!

“Sunset with Low Clouds”
5×7, oil, en plein air
$70+$5 shipping – contact Michael


Leave a Comment
  1. Ed Terpening / May 4 2008 11:49 pm

    I’ve heard the same about Zorn, great research clearing this up.

    I painted a month or two with a few different limited palettes, like Zorn’s. They are great learning tools, bending colors this way and that. Although I paint with 15 colors, I almost never use them all in one painting. I will basically create a limited palette using my 15 to choose from, based on the subject.

    Beautiful painting.

  2. Frank Gardner / May 5 2008 1:02 am

    Thanks for the informative post about the “Zorn” palette.
    The yellow ochre, cad red, ivory black and white palette is a versatile limited palette. I was glad to hear he threw some blue in there at least once in a while.
    That is a great painting. A good example of the surrounding color affecting the look of the adjacent colors.

  3. Michael Chesley Johnson, PSA, PSNM / May 5 2008 12:10 pm

    Thanks, Ed and Frank!

  4. Michelle (artscapes) / May 8 2008 6:15 pm

    The painting is gorgeous!
    I love limited palette work. Thanks for the info!

  5. Anwar / Sep 17 2009 12:46 am

    Yep, the limited palette was the basis of the emphasis color scheme paintings. It was just lamp black, yellow ochre and red oxide with lead white. To this one added one color to emphasize. Zorn chose Vermillion to push in a few portraits and especially nudes. It can actually work with any color even blue but one doesnt use the blue to mix all the colors just to push the color of a central object.

  6. Patti C. / Oct 12 2010 1:49 pm

    The earth colors give it such a quiet elegance! I have never cared for the harsh cadmiums.

    I did an oil in art school with titanium white, some black, a red earth, and a yellow earth. The mixes were amazing. It had the loveliest silvery grays.

    What red did you use? It seems the red-orange gave it just enough brilliance. Your have some lovely salmons in there. There are greenish tones in the clouds.

    As lovely as the web version is, it can’t do it full justice. I don’t think printer’s ink can ever represent earth colors properly. Do the salmons appear warm in regular indoor light on the panting?

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