The Zorn palette (also known as the Apelles palette) comprises four colours thought to have been used by the Swedish portrait painter Anders Zorn (18 February 1860 – 22 August 1920). These colours are Vermilion, Ivory Black, Flake White and Yellow Ochre. However because of the unavailability of Flake White and the expense of Vermilion, these colours are now often exchanged for Titanium White and Cadmium Red respectively. There is evidence that this palette has been in use by painters since the 4th Century BC; Pliny referred to the painter Apelles of Kos’ tetrachromatic palette, which comprised red, yellow, black and white pigments. It is referred to today by many contemporary portrait tutors, both online and at in-person portrait workshops, as it is an effective framework of colour within which you can explore mixing skin tones with relative ease. Here, I demonstrate the variety of colours you can mix with this four colour palette, how you might use these colours, and how you could use the Zorn palette as a model for selecting colours for other palettes.
For this post I worked with Jackson’s Artist Acrylics on System 3 acrylic paper.
A closer look at the colours I worked with:
Made with a single pigment PR108, Cadmium Red Genuine is an opaque, bright orangey-red.
The black I used was not Ivory black, instead it was a mix of Carbon and Mars Black pigments (PBK11 and PBk7). It is a relatively warm black which has a brownish tint when mixed with small quantities of white. Had I used Ivory black the mixes may have been even more luminous!
Single pigment PW6 Titanium White, an opaque bright white that is great for mixing light shades and colours to be used for highlights and accents.
Single pigment PY42 which is opaque, warm and earthy.
The benefit of a restricted palette
The great thing about the Zorn palette is that because the number of pigments you are working with is restricted, there is less risk of achieving muddy colours. Muddy or dull colours are made when too many different pigments are combined. When many different pigment particles are combined, it is more difficult for light to pass through the paint, which means that the transparent qualities of certain pigments are taken away, reducing colour luminosity. Additionally the brightest colours are usually single pigment colours, so by mixing them with other colours the inevitable result is that you ‘knock back’ some of that brightness. Some degree of ‘knocking back’ and of opacifying colours is often desirable, but if you step back and feel your painting looks a little dull, it may mean that you have mixed too many of your colours across your whole picture surface. A good balance between light and dark, warm and cool, transparent and opaque, within a painting, is often key to ensuring your painting is captivating to the eye. A limited palette can help to maintain these balances.
Why make a colour chart
The more familiar you are with how colours behave (both independently and when mixed with one another) the easier they are to use and to stretch their potential. Making colour charts is a great way to explore what mixes your palette is capable of. In the case of the Zorn palette, the absence of blue can be off putting, as can the specific choice of red (not pink enough) and yellow (too earthy). By mixing the colours methodically, and recording the proportions, you will soon find how much potential there is to be found within these four colours. When faced with the mixes you can achieve, it can be much easier to imagine those colours being used to create a painting.
How to make a colour chart
To make a colour chart, use a surface that replicates the surface that you make your paintings on. If you use a surface that is more absorbent, such as unprimed paper, the paint might sink and appear differently. I used acrylic painting paper for my charts as it has a similar absorbency to the panels I usually paint on.
When making a colour chart, mixing and applying the squares of each mix is much easier with a palette knife, as you can mix and lay the colour and then quickly wipe any excess paint from the knife before you mix your next hue. I found it useful to apply the colours to the paper on a pre-drawn grid, as it helped me to avoid repeating colour mixes. Each of my charts is made up of 5 x 5 squares, each square being a 2 cm square with a 1 cm gap between each. I have seen other charts being made using strips of masking tape which you can lift once you’ve made your chart, to give your coloured squares clean sharp edges, but personally, I find the painterliness of the squares and the messy edges helpful when imagining how these colours might work within the context of a finished painting.
Unlocking the subtleties of the Zorn palette
In my opinion, the beauty of the Zorn palette really lies in the very subtle nuanced shades that it is capable of, and the colour charts really helped to establish that.
Chart 1a: Yellow Ochre – Cadmium Red (and Titanium White)
The top row of this chart shows Pure Yellow Ochre (top left) transition to Cadmium Red (top right). Of course the transition could be spread out over more squares should you wish! But for this chart I mixed the ratios as follows:
Beneath the top row, I began adding a little Titanium White to these mixes, starting with roughly 25% white, then 50% white, then 75% white, then 95% white. The mixes you start to get with a lot of white added start to resemble the kinds of colours you might use when painting light skin tones in natural light conditions, while the more saturated colour mixes could work well in shadows, or lips, or hair. With these three tubes of paint you can really achieve some useful shades of yellow and red ochre as well as peachy pinks and beiges.
Adding Black to the Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red and Titanium White mixes
I then tried adding a touch of Black to these predominantly yellow/red mixes. The black cooled the mixes off and added a degree of green to the largely yellow mixes, violet to the largely red mixes, and grey when there was a lot of black present and a touch of white. In this second chart I have mixed the same transition from Yellow Ochre to Cadmium Red as before, but this time, I have started with 95% white on the top row, and gradually reduced the amount of white added, all the while increasing the amount of black used as I moved down the chart.
The result is some beautiful tan and ochre shades, as well as rich chocolate hues, red-browns, and deep green-greys. By playing around with the slightest changes in proportions with all four tubes you immediately see what this palette is capable of.
Cadmium Red – Black (and Titanium White)
For this chart the top row is the transition from Cadmium Red – Black without white, and then the rows below it show what happens when more and more Titanium White is added to the red/black mixes. For realistic portrait painting it is hard to see what use a pure Cadmium Red could be, but when you start to see it mixed with a lot of Titanium White and some Black, you start to see some of the dirty pinks and soft greys it is capable of, which could be very useful for a variety of skin hues as well as lighting conditions.
Adding Yellow Ochre to the Cadmium Red, Black and Titanium White mixes
For this chart I added a small amount of Yellow Ochre to my red/black mixes and then started by adding 95% white for the top row, and then reduced the amount of white as I moved down the chart. I also added some Black to the pure red mixes in order to get some colours that I hadn’t already mixed (see the red/yellow chart). The yellow inevitably warmed up some of the blacker mixes, and made the more red mixes slightly orangey. However, the impact of the Yellow Ochre was not as profound here as the impact of Black on the red/yellow mixes as Cadmium Red and Black are such strong colours. That said you can see some impact of the Yellow Ochre. It has certainly made some of the dirty pinks of the previous chart more orange-ochrey, and also added a hint of green to the grey mixes. A lovely array of dusky hues that would no doubt be very useful in shadows, but I could also see these brick reds and concrete greys very easily in an urban landscape.
Black – Yellow Ochre (and Titanium White)
The top row is a transition from Black – Yellow Ochre with no white added. Below this I add increasing quantities of white as you move down the chart – the bottom row shows mixes with 95% white. The biggest revelation is how beautiful the olive green mixes are that you can achieve, coupled with those subtle grey-greens towards the bottom of the chart. The deeper greys again would work as the darkest accents in a portrait, but you could very easily see this sort of palette of colours in a Kyffin Williams rural landscape. In other words, this palette isn’t only for portraits.
Adding Cadmium Red to Black, Yellow Ochre and Titanium White mixes
In this final chart, I added a trace of red to my black/yellow mixes from the previous chart, and started with adding 95% Titanium White in the top row, and decreased the amount of white added as I moved down the chart. As expected, subtle dirty pinks and violets started to creep into the chart. The rich brown you get from mixing red and black somehow becomes more skin-like when a hint of white and yellow are added. And there’s a real freshness to the mix of Yellow Ochre with a touch of Cadmium Red and 50% Titanium White. Without exploring the mixes of this palette, you might be surprised by the earthy violet ochres that can be achieved, and the array of nuanced greys.
How to use the Zorn Palette as a model on which to base other palettes
Why is it that the Zorn palette is still so popular today? The answer to this question could act as a starting point for how other limited palettes could be composed.
When using the original colour selection of Flake White, Vermilion, Yellow Ochre and Titanium White (or the often used alternative of Titanium White, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red and Ivory Black), the palette is composed of four single pigment colours. So even if you mix all four you are only working with four different pigments, which is a relatively small number. If colour luminosity is key, then its worth checking to see if the majority of colours in your limited palette are single pigment colours.
A Balance of Warm and Cool Colours
You might also consider colour temperature. The black and white are cool or neutral, while the red and yellow add warmth, so you could consider experimenting with other warm and cool colours with a range of tonal values, for example, exchanging your black and white for a deep blue and a very pale grey, and choosing other variations of red and yellow (Magenta and Lemon Yellow would be a more exotic mix!)
The Zorn palette includes a dark, dark-mid, light-mid, and white tone – covering a range of tonal value. Another factor that could be considered when selecting a limited palette.
In the Zorn palette, Black ends up playing the role of a blue in its absence, and that could be a point of inspiration. You might feel inspired to replace the black with a blue, but then remove one of the other primary colours, for example replacing the Yellow Ochre with a pale green or Cadmium Red with a violet or orange?
The Zorn palette may be limited to just four colours, but within it there is so much scope for subtle shifts in temperature and tone, and it’s possible to paint a wide range of skin tones, not to mention atmospheric landscapes and still life. A limited palette is much like a key in music, and can be used as a framework within which to create harmonies and a colourist interpretation of your subject. By exploring the colours through making charts I was also reminded of the importance of white, and not to be afraid to use lots of it, in order to create the most beautiful light-valued colours, vital for convincing accents and highlights in a painting.
With thanks to Michael Lynn Adams and his writing on the Zorn palette.