Learning the Limited Palette

There is something so magical about capturing someone's essence on canvas. I'm fascinated and frustrated in equal measures as I try to learn to be a better portrait artist. I love the energy of painting from life, be it people or landscapes. Several years ago, I came across information on the Zorn Palette and thought, “Wow, only four colors!” White, yellow ochre, cadmium red and Ivory black - and variations. I've experimented with various limited palettes, but after looking at Anders Zorn's portraits, I knew it was worth considering and experimenting with.

Anders Zorn, Self Portrait with Model, 1896

Anders Zorn was a pre-eminent Swedish artist (1860-1920). He began as a watercolorist, painting beautiful landscapes, seascapes, as well as some portraits. In 1887, Zorn and his wife traveled with the English painter Alice Miller to Cornwall on England’s southwest coast. In the village of St. Ives in England, they found a wonderful fishing setting as well as a colony of international artists. Their visit lasted through the winter and was transformative for Anders Zorn as a painter. These painters inspired Anders Zorn to begin to paint in oils. An American artist, Edward Simmons, claimed to "help the Swede" to set his palette. This initial palette was black, white and yellow ochre. After the addition of red, this became Anders Zorn's initial palette. This palette is evident in his painting Self Portrait with Model painted in 1896. It's obvious as you look further at Zorn's work that he did not limit himself to just that palette. There are many paintings that obviously have blues, greens and purples that could never have been created with the typical “Zorn” palette, but there are many incredible portraits that seem to have been painted with just those four colors.

Close-up of Zorn's four-color palette

In my mission to learn portraiture, it was great to simplify the color aspect of my decision-making and focus more on the person in front of me. I found it quite liberating and rarely restrictive, unless the model wore blue or some vibrant purple. Since I was predominantly focused on their faces, it usually wasn't a problem. Occasionally I will add ultramarine blue to my palette if the model wears blue. I also discovered that I was able to handle virtually any skin tone - brown, black or Caucasian - with those four colors. In my experimentation, I decided to use Cadmium Red Medium as my red. I found it more neutral than Cadmium Red Light or Vermilion. The other advantage to this palette was that I was virtually guaranteed color harmony because of the limited colors.

Robin Wellner, Todd, oil, 16 x 20"

As time progressed and I became comfortable using this palette, I realized it would be a great asset to teaching. It simplified the color aspect of portrait painting, allowing more time to consider other aspects. Now prior to a workshop, I give my students homework and ask that they do color charts with those four colors. I developed a YouTube video that shows the process of doing a color chart, so they can follow along. As a result, they arrive at the workshop familiar with the range of skin tones they can achieve and are usually excited about the process. For those who may not have painted recently, it gets them to experiment with the paint before they come to the workshop.

Robin Wellner, Rara, oil, 12 x 16"

I don't limit myself solely to using the Zorn palette when I do portraits, but I have found it a wonderful tool for learning. In this huge challenge of portrait painting, I'm grateful for anything to speed my learning! What tools have you learned to speed up that process?

Portrait Society member and Cecilia Beaux Forum guest writer Robin Wellner is an avid learner and works hard at trying to hone her skills as a portrait artist. She developed and teaches a workshop using the Zorn limited palette, "Alla Prima Portraits, using the Zorn Palette.” She hopes to pass on anything she’s learned to assist other artists who are passionate about painting the portrait.

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