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December 28, 2008

Insider Paintball: Anders Zorn's Palette

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This post is intended for practicing or wannabe painters who are at the point where they're thinking deeply about color usage. Other readers are always welcome, of course.

Often mentioned in the same breath with John Singer Sargent are the Spaniard Joaquin Sorolla, who I wrote about here and the Swede Anders Zorn (1860-1920), who I dealt with briefly here. A 12-part Web-based biography of Zorn can be found here.

In brief, Zorn was a highly regarded portrait artist, one of his subjects being President Grover Cleveland. Besides portraits, he painted country scenes and an extensive series of nude Swedish girls who would be far too buxom to land fashion model jobs were they alive today.

Zorn etched and sculpted, but is best known as a painter. He began in watercolors (usually painting opaquely) and later switched to oils.

Self-portrait - 1896

Note the palette Zorn is holding in this self-portrait. It seems to have only four colors, whereas most artists' palettes have a dozen or more placed around the edges. As best I can tell, those colors are white, yellow ochre, cadmium red light and black. Four colors: that's all -- and this set is often referred to as the Zorn Palette.

According to one source (which, to my shame, I lost because I failed to write it down before I decided to write a post on this subject), Zorn would use other reds and yellows if he wanted to change the tone or mood of a painting from what yellow ochre and cadmium red light offer. Such an alternative might be alizarin crimson and cadmium yellow light.

I haven't yet experimented with a Zorn Palette, but this painter did, and had difficulty.

Even though Zorn himself showed four colors in his self-portrait, he probably used more when the occasion demanded. For example, this article states that a person associated with a Swedish museum devoted to Zorn asserted that Zorn also used cobalt blue because more than 30 tubes of it were found among his possessions after he died. The source further stated that Zorn often painted water, which is difficult to do without blue -- one of the three primary pigment colors along with red and yellow. (Green, normally a mixture of yellow and blue could be obtained from the Zorn Palette by mixing yellow with black. A blue could be obtained by mixing black with white, though some blacks are probably more suitable for this than others.)

There is no consensus in how-to books for painting regarding palettes. At least one I have favors having black, white and a warm and cool version of each of the three primaries. Other books acknowledge that, in theory, all colors can be mixed from the primaries (plus white and black to lighten or darken) -- but the chemistry of paint ingredients makes this impossible in practice. Therefore, one should use a variety of colors because this can get you closer to the colors you want without mixing too many initial colors -- a practice that runs the risk of yielding "muddy" results.

I'm still working this out for myself. Presently I'm trying to limit my palette as much as possible to create a more unified effect. But the palettes vary depending on the effect I want to create. For example, one trial painting of a face uses alizarin crimson and Naples yellow as the basis for flesh tones and another uses cadmium red light and yellow ochre for that purpose; the former results in a bluer tone and the latter is more orange.

Your thoughts are welcome in Comments.

Below are examples of Anders Zorn's paintings.


Mrs. Potter Palmer - 1893
This is a society portrait Zorm painted while he was in Chicago for the Columbian Exposition.

Hins Anders - 1904
An example of a non-society portrait.

Les Demoiselles Schwartz - 1889
The Schwartz sisters were pupils of Zorn while he was building his career.

Girls from Dalarma Having a Bath - 1906
Most of Zorn's Swedish nudes were painted outdoors; this is an exception.

Girl Undressing - 1893
An outdoor scene with the subject on her way to nudity.

Midsummer Dance - 1897
This country scene is one of Zorn's best-known paintings.



posted by Donald at December 28, 2008


It's funny; I know lots of people who talk about Zorn the painter, but to me his significance is as a draftsman. My goodness, what a sure hand at his drawing and what a sure touch tonally. As a colorist, he's more or less functional, but not much more. I suspect he used such a limited palette because color was a secondary concern for him.

Thanks for the pictures, though; it's always good to see a Zorn painting.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 28, 2008 12:04 PM

Most great colorists used limited palettes. The same limited palette that you refer to here was used extensively by Sargent. In fact, for most of Sargent's watercolor work, he used only four colors--ultramarine blue, yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, and burnt sienna. Those colors were Sorolla's workhorses too, but he embellished those with bright accents.

Limited palettes of toned-down colors are inexpensive, greatly facilitate color harmony, and also allow for quick color-mixing when painting from life. Most observers of painting don't know this, but experienced artists do. That's why the best painters usually use limited palettes.

Everything in painting is about contrasts. Bright colors need to be set next to grays in order to be bright, dark against light, etc.

Zorn was a fine colorist--better than most. You have to see how he used what he had, and he used it brilliantly. Look at the painting of the woman in the shade above--masterful.

I've used that limited palette and its fine for figure work under north light. Summer landscapes usually need a brighter yellow and blue. But the limited palette is the way to go.

Posted by: BTM on December 28, 2008 1:37 PM

Very nice. Yet another artist I had not heard of.

Posted by: JV on December 28, 2008 3:33 PM

My guess would be french ultramarine blue, not black.

And my God, what women! Real women, for a change.

Posted by: ricpic on December 28, 2008 3:46 PM

Fantastic!! I had not heard of Zorn. I particularly like "girl undressing."

I push culturism as the opposite of multiculturalism. Culturism says the West has a core culture. These days that is a hard sell. People say, "What do you mean by western culture?"

I usually point to our history from Greece, to Rome, to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Folks have usually heard of this trajectory.

Art is another way to go about it. Zorn's work does not look like traditional Asian work. SInce Islam has banned human figures, the same holds true for them. This realistic engagement with a human figure is Western. It occurs in a long series of developments in western art. It is excellent and a tradition that will disappear if we do not support the West.

do you know I love them. They consider modernism to be a mistake. Their gallery collection is incredible.


Posted by: Culturist John on December 28, 2008 7:37 PM

Donald, I keep checking out Midsummer Dance. Puts me in mind of that wonderful outdoor dance in Ford's My Darling Clementine.

Love the two-way movement of breeze and dance-steps; and that burnish on the rear building seals the whole outdoor-deal. Is the Arctic late-light masterfully portrayed, or am I just easily impressed?

Posted by: Robert Townshend on December 29, 2008 4:22 PM

So familiar!
The scene could be anywhere from the archipelago between Stockholm and Finland just after sunset but is in fact from Dalarna, a mildly mountinous part of inner Sweden. It´s paintid may be around 11pm and yes, the light is very true to life! Everything points to a weather which is very calm with just some occasional bursts of wind. If you walk a little further behind the buildings it`s suddenly very quiet, just the far away music and a lonely nightingale ...
... and Ingrid and ... how to? ...
Well, you know the rest.

Yes, he is the master of light and shade, too

Posted by: HannuHoo on December 30, 2008 7:51 AM

Oops! That was to Robert, of course.

Donald, your posts on painting are my 'butter and bread', I have really enjoued them and have much where we agree. That sayed I have to admit that there is something in Zorn that leaves me 'alone'
he doesn't take me with him like f.ex. van Gogh does!?

Posted by: HannuHoo on December 30, 2008 8:13 AM

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