More on the Limited Palette: ZORN

Oh my, I’ve not updated this blog in a little over a year! I’ve been bad!

Well, I’m going to try to be more steadfast in updating this blog, because there’s always a lot of neato arty stuff to talk about.

In this post, I’m going to explore the “limited palette,” aka the ZORN PALETTE, a little more. (NOTE: This limited palette exercise can be used with any paints: Oils, acrylics, watercolors, gouache.)

“Piercing Gaze,” 6×8″ oil on linen. Thanks to Stockingbird on DeviantArt for the stock photo I used as reference.

This painting was done using only four colors! They are:

  • White (Titanium-Zinc White, or Titanium White)
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Ivory Black

The Zorn Palette (named after the famous artist Anders Zorn) is wonderful for students (and anybody!) to try. You are limited in what colors you can mix, and you must look at your subject and analyze what colors you see. The most important things to look for are:

  • Value (Light, dark, white, black?)
  • Temperature (warm? cool? Leaning more towards blueish or orangeish?)

And that’s it. You can analyze color (is this blue or green? Red or purple?) but you cannot always get the exact color you see, because you are limited by the four colors (white, black, red, and ochre). But that’s okay! Because as long as you have value and temperature right (and some close facsimile of the color) then you’re good. In many cases, no one will ever notice that you used a “limited” palette!

What’s especially amazing about the Zorn Palette is how many colors you can mix with just these four tubes of paint. You learn to “create” the illusion of a color through mixing. So if you have a blue color you’d like to create, but you don’t have a blue tube of paint, you can often make do with Ivory Black (which leans a bit blue-ish anyway). If you need a green, mixing Ivory Black and Yellow Ochre will give you a sort of olive green. Purple can be achieved with Cadmium Red Light, Ivory Black, and a little bit of White. It’s amazing what you can get.


Also, the illusion of color can be created by what is surrounding that color. Now it’s sometimes hard to show an example (since color displays differently on each computer monitor, tablet, and phone), but an example would be, Ivory Black (remember, Ivory Black leans blueish anyway) and white will create the illusion of a muted blue, especially if it’s placed right up next to a warm orange or reddish color. (The grey Ivory Black/White mixture looks more blue in comparison to the warm orange/red color.)

Like for instance, the blue-grey background in the above painting:

Detail of “Piercing Gaze.”

Since I couldn’t use a tube of blue paint, I mixed Black and White to create that background color. It tends to lean towards blue, because compared to the warmth of his skin, it’s so cool (blueish). But I only used black and white! How could I create “blue”? But it looks blue.


I saw a lot of grey, and slight green-grey, in the cheek area. (It’s his five-o’clock shadow.) Not hard to mix with the Zorn Palette—Ivory Black, a little bit of Yellow Ochre, and white. The grey makes the pink in his cheeks look more pink by comparison, yet the skin tones are not overly (unnaturally) vibrant when you look at the whole portrait.

Another detail of “Piercing Gaze.”

The Zorn Palette is awesome! It’s less expensive to paint with it (because you only need the four tubes of paint) and it’s good for beginners. But it’s also a wonderful exercise for more seasoned artists, to see how much they can “push” it, how many colors they can mix, and what illusions they can create with just these four colors.

I encourage everyone to try it out! You won’t be sorry.

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