Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Zorn Palette

Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860-1920)  has long been associated with a limited palette of four colors. Rosemary Hoffman, in the book Northern Light: Nordic Art at the Turn of the Century wrote, “Zorn was noted for executing paintings using a sober color scale limited to white, ochre, vermilion, and ivory black.”


Hans Henrik Brummer, writing in the 1986 catalog on Zorn, said “basically his register was limited to black, white, earth yellows and vermilion; other pigments could be used if local accents were needed.”

Several art teachers, such as Jeff Watts, use the “Zorn palette” (sometimes substituting cadmium red light for vermilion) as a teaching tool because it provides students with a finite range of color choices with a wide enough gamut to handle most figure paintings. The gray can appear as a blue in the context of the limited palette.

But recently some authorities have cast doubt on Zorn’s use of the limited palette. 

Bob Bahr of American Artist magazine states that the so-called Zorn palette “may be a very useful tool, but it is a mistake to attribute it to Anders Zorn.”  Bahr cites Birgitta Sandström, the museum director of the Zorn Collections in Mora, Sweden, who claims that she has “difficulty even comprehending the assumption that Zorn worked with the specialized palette associated with him” because of the fact that blue and green are found in some of his paintings, and because those colors were found among his studio effects.

She reports that “17 tubes of cobalt alone are represented among the 243 tubes of paint left by Zorn in his studio in Mora.” Merit Laine, curator of prints and drawings at Stockholm's Nationalmuseum, “concurs that the notion of a Zorn palette is a bit of a misnomer.”


I don’t claim to be a Zorn expert, but speaking as a painter, I think these commentators are mistaken and have likely overstated the case. No one has suggested that Zorn exclusively used the ultra-limited palette. Obviously, many of his paintings (such as the one above) use a wider array of colors, including blue.

I believe there’s also a logical problem with the evidence of the surviving paint tubes. They don’t prove much. In my own case, the back of my paint drawer is crammed with dozens of colors. Some of them, such as Aubusson Green and Tuareg Blue, I purchased cheap and I never use; some I haven’t touched in 20 years. Some are so expensive I hesitate to use them. Some have caps or labels that fell off and I don’t know what they are. Some are so toxic that I avoid them like nuclear waste. Some are stuck to the bottom of the drawer in a pool of leaking linseed oil that turned to glue.

I often use limited palettes, but you would never guess it from looking in my paint drawer.

What evidence is there that Zorn used the famous four-color palette? First, many of his paintings appear to be painted within a narrow gamut that could have been painted from those colors.

 
Theoretically, one could paint such a picture from either a full palette or a limited palette. A chemical analysis would prove it for sure.

Many of Zorn’s heroes, such as Frans Hals, Diego Velasquez, and James M Whistler, used limited palettes. Talk about limited palettes among artists of Zorn’s day was commonplace.

There’s also the testimony of fellow painters writing about Zorn’s palette during Zorn’s lifetime. For example, European-trained Birge Harrison (1854-1929), in his book “Landscape Painting” in 1909, says: “The expert cannot be bothered with useless pigments. He selects the few that are really essential and throws aside the rest as useless lumber. The distinguished Swedish artist, Zorn, uses but two colors—vermilion and yellow ochre; his two other pigments black and white, being the negation of color. With this palette, simple to the point of poverty, he nevertheless finds it possible to paint an immense variety of landscape and figure subjects.”


Then there are the actual palettes that survive in the Zorn museums. This one may have a touch of cadmium yellow, or perhaps a dab of blue or green, but it’s a small palette and a small box, and it seems to emphasize the main four colors.


Finally, there is the self portrait, which clearly shows the palette with the four colors: white, ochre, red, and black. Zorn was conscious of his own image. He was aware that he was an artist’s artist even in his own day. He proudly showed off the four-color palette.

What the doubters need to understand is that a limited palette is not a sign of impoverishment, but rather of resourcefulness. As Brummer says, “limitation could, in fact, be an asset.” Zorn’s experiments with limited palettes were a part of his virtuosity, a token of his strength as a painter.

LINKS
"Sweden's Sargent" on the American Artist website.
Anders Zorn complete works (website)
Anders Zorn on Wikipedia

BOOKS
Northern Light: Nordic Art at the Turn of the Century
Zorn: Paintings, Graphics, and Sculpture
Landscape Painting by Birge Harrison
Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter
Thanks, Tim Adkins for the palette photo.

46 comments:

mimitabby said...

haha, I'm with you. The second I read that he had all those tubes of blue paint, I knew it. He still had them because he never used them.
Interesting article, Thank you!

Tom Hart said...

Great post and analysis, James. I'm with you and mimitabby on the fallacy of the "remaining tubes". The first thing I thought when I read there were "17 tubes of cobalt" was, yeah...and how many were empty or only partly full?

...It appears you've been looking in my paint drawer. How'd you do that?

Matt said...

Zorn palette is great! I use it all the time. Sometimes I use blue black instead of ivory black, which allows you to get the blues and greens.

Darren said...

Despite Harrison's assertion, I was taught that the 'Zorn palette' referenced his flesh palette.

Daroo said...

Great post and historical detective work-- I like using the Zorn palette (w/ cad red or cad scarlet) too and will continue to call it the Zorn palette. Even if he only used it only 1/2 the time he used it best, hence, the Zorn palette...
(I also like the James Perry Wilson limited palette -- which I learned about on GJ in an earlier post.)

BTW, I believe that the painting of the two girls is a watercolor

Bottom of the drawer colors: mars violet, terre vert, permanent green, zinc yellow, expensive purples, vermillion hue, and a bunch of other "hues" of questionable origin.

My Pen Name said...

I don’t claim to be a Zorn expert, but speaking as a painter,

I think a huge part of the problem of art historians and critics is just that - they aren't painters.

I think they are as out touch with reality and in love with their theories as economists.

Some are so toxic that I avoid them like nuclear waste.
Which ones?

Marianne said...

I have seen an exhibition of many of Anders Zorn's painting in Copenhagen, and I saw many paintings with more colors than in the limited pallet he is know for. Many of his art works was done in a limit pallet, but defiantly not all of them.

David Patel said...

I've always doubted Zorn's palette. love his paintings, but it sounds like the guy was a douche

innisart said...

Odd Nerdrum is a big fan of Zorn. Currently in Norway is a show where the two artists have work hanging side by side ("The Kings of Painting: Zorn and Nerdrum"). Nerdrum's palette, based on the one associated with Zorn, consists of vermilion, yellow ochre, titanium white, and Mars black.

At a demo at the recent Weekend with the Masters in NYC, when Nerdrum introduced his palette to the class, they were skeptical that it was his standard palette. Everyone started pulling out Nerdrum's books and asking, "What about this blue shirt?", "How about the blue skies?", "The blue eyes?" etc., and to their shock, each time he told them it was Mars black + white.

It's all about about comparisons and relativity to surrounding colors. Black and yellow can make a good green, and black and white can make a good blue, when juxtaposed against more chromatic yellows and reds.

I would hate to think someone would try to decipher my standard palette from my paint drawers!

Great post.

kev ferrara said...

Great post Jim! Very well considered.

I think it would be great to do a test of the full gamut of colors possible from the Zorn palette... to see just how far the four pigments would stretch. What would the strongest Blue look like? The strongest Green or Yellow?

Certainly a "limited but sufficient" rainbow of colors would result... enough to make a "colorful picture" if played smartly. (And Zorn was as crafty as they come!)

kev

P.S. I too would be interested in a list of pigments so toxic you won't use them. Are you talking cobalts and cadmiums?

Kimber Scott said...

I've never heard of the "Zorn Pallette" until reading this post, but I've used it a lot, though not quite as expertly as he did - or as Odd Nerdrum. I was under the impression it predated Zorn. Red, yellow and black. Am I wrong? What about Rubens?

Moish said...

James, unless this is a tradition through the ages, you may want to clean out that drawer. :)

Chris Vosters said...

This site: http://michaellynnadams.com/zorn-palette/ offers a nice exercise that really shows the strength of the palette. It's even possible to mix blueish tones using the black.

tinoradman said...

I have some books on Zorn. They're in Swedish :( but the repros are excellent. It is obvious that he used limited palette. Sometimes Zorn would added viridian to the list.
Generally speaking, the curators and art historians lack the experience and practical knowledge serious painters and they should consult them when the need arises, like in this case.

Tom Hart said...

I, for one, don't find it very surprising that black (with white) yields a type of blue. When I first learned that different yellows plus black produces various greens, that was proof enough for me that "black" contains blue.

Kasey said...

Interesting write up. It is a relief to know that your paint drawer is in as much a state of disarray as my own. The solidified linseed oil in particular is reassuring that I am not doing something wrong...although in my case it happens to be old walnut oil. :)

Daroo said...

Chris Vosters -- thanks for the link.

Zanne said...

I've played around a little with the Zorn palette, substituting Cad Red Lt for Vermilion. You really can get a huge range of colors from it. The hard part for me was controlling the Cadmium Red. Its so much stronger tinting than the Ochre that its hard to keep it from overwhelming the whole palette.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2iveDdru8Q
Here is a neat video of a guy mixing a Zorn-type palette, but with Alizarin Crimson instead of Vermilion

Thomas Kitts said...

James:

I suspect the real truth lies between both extremes. Perhaps Zorn painted without any other color as many believe. But it seems more likely to me that he added touches of other pigments when they were completely and unavoidably needed. Touches. Sure, it would be interesting to see a complete chemical analysis of his work, but doing so would become something of a tangent since whether or not Zorn did or didn't limit himself to four colorants remains somewhat beside the point. What remains more salient is Zorn's skill in how he handled the colors he did use. Not necessarily nailing down which ones they actually were.

And I am a big Zorn fan. As well as Sorolla, Sargent, and Velasquez. All of whom noted for their limited palettes.

I've worked with the so-called "Zorn palette" and much can be accomplished with it. It will provide one form of harmony, but also requires an intense attention to creating a strong value structure, and relies a lot upon the gesture of the mark. It's not for the novice painter, if you ask me. It is best suited to the advanced painter who is looking for a new challenge. To do more with less.

Oh, and I might as throw in Edward Seago into this short list of painters too, if we are to discuss limited palettes, and what may be accomplished with them. Not that I am attempting to provide a definite list here...

Great blog, James. Always a pleasure to read. really good stuff.

Thomas Kitts
http://wwwthomaskitts.com
http://www.thomaskitts.blogspot.com

Tom Hart said...

First of all, I'd like to give a shout-out to Thomas Kitts' work. If you haven't already checked out his website, I encourage you to do so.

Thomas, I'm not sure if this is a quibble with the point you made about beginners and the Zorn palette or not. Maybe you were specifically referring to the Zorn palette. Personally, I think there's more to be learned about color mixing from a limited pallette, and my experience is that I learned much more - at least I learned more quicky, by working initially with a limited paletted - though admittedly it wasn't quite as limited as the Zorn palette.

Bill said...

The original "Zorn Palette" goes back to the cave painters, I think: red & yellow ochre, charcoal & white chalk.

It a good discipline to master (not to say I have) and works quite well for figures, but it's pretty limiting for landscapes. Adding Viridian to the mix opens up a bunch of possibilities there, you can make much more convincing sky colors.

Ditto on having a bunch of tubes I rarely use, but I do use a pretty wide range, although rarely more than 6 or 7 in one painting.

Thomas Kitts said...

First, thank you Tom, for the shout out regarding my work. But like everyone else here, I am still striving to become a stronger painter.

I get your point, that a limited palette can be helpful for the beginner but not unless there is a skilled teacher working with the novice. A reduced palette might facilitate a keener perception of value relationships, and in fact, the modern atelier system somewhat follows that line of reasoning, but if a novice is to learn how to recognize and mix naturalistic color then having a full spectral range of hues at hand is helpful. (I generally start off teaching the complementary mixing system myself.)

Someone expressed earlier that to create a 'blue' using the Zorn palette that all one has to do is mix black and white together. If only it were so straight-forward as that. First, it takes the right kind of black (in Z's case I believe it was Ivory or bone black biased toward to cool, and not a red back such as Mars...) but more importantly, it takes an understanding of how to load a warm bias in the area around the cool passage in a plausible way to optically generate a sense of 'blueness' within the viewer's eye. An entirely different thing from copying nature. And an effect Zorn didn't invent. The cool/warm division is a painting effect which has been well understood all the way back to the 14th century, when painters had a very limited choice for cool hues and had to do it this way.

In the end it is important for the beginner to understand what happens to the temperature of a particular hue when they add white or black to it, limited palette or not. There is not only a shift in value, which they generally can perceive, but also a shift in temperature which may cause that passage to disassociate from the surrounding color, and often such subtleties are overlooked or uncontrolled by the novice. (Not judging here, just sayin'...)

So those are a few reasons -- and certainly not all -- why I might advocate the novice painter start out with a full range of (equally balanced) hues, and learn how to manage all of them at in their mixtures.

And Tom, I hope what I've written makes sense. If not, I apologize.

Thomas Kitts
http://wwwthomaskitts.com
http://www.thomaskitts.blogspot.com

Tom Hart said...

Thomas, Your explanation - especially the reminder about the importance of the interplay of adjacent colors - makes perfect sense. Thanks for the explanation.

Michael Pieczonka said...

Interesting article James, and you make a strong case for the Zorn palette. It seems pretty obvious that he must have used a very limited palette for the majority of his subdued portraits, but I've often wondered if he did not have other options when he did his outdoor scenes around Dalarna. A few of these paintings have very vibrant greens within the foliage that I simply don't see how he could have achieved with yellow ochre and black. The more I hear people like J. Watts and S. Christensen talk with certainty of his limited palette, the more I wonder.

I also get your point about many artists having a slew of tubes in their studio at anytime that they may or may not have ever used, but doesn't it seem a little odd that someone would collect 17 tubes of one particular pigment and not have a use for it? It would be great if they could do some sort of pigment analysis of his paintings like you say. It would put the debate to rest for good!!

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody, these comments take the discussion miles forward. I haven't painted too much with the Zorn palette, so I don't have as much working knowledge or teaching knowledge of it as many of you do.

Like some of you, I have a hard time giving up viridian when I'm doing flesh tones and backgrounds. And I usually like my two-color limited palettes to have a warm and a cool.

Those "toxic tubes" are label-less lead whites and cadmium reds with holes in the shoulders of the tubes that leak out whenever you squeeze them. I don't wear gloves, so if I touch them, I get the stuff all over. I do use cadmium yellow, but try to avoid the lead.

Michael, I'm sure you're right on the landscapes and other paintings with a wider gamut. But you wouldn't have to add many colors to get his full range. Maybe a yellow and a blue and a green. I think some Zorn experts rightly object to people who say that Zorn ONLY used the "Zorn palette."

Thomas Kitts said...

James, and anyone else stlll following this thread...

While I respect anyone who shows concern about the toxicity of our materials, sometimes the dangers we receive are a bit overstated. Sure, cinnabar, mercury, and arsenic, and the like -- all of which can appear in some of the more esoteric colorants, such as Zorn's Vermillion -- can be harmful to us by passing through the skin barrier. But lead (carbonate) is not that worrisome because it doesn't pass through the skin barrier. So as long as you or I aren't handling it in a powdered state without the proper protection, or eating a sandwich in the studio with it all over our hands, or brushing our teeth with it, we'll be fine painting with it. And lead white will do some remarkable things titanium and zinc cannot.

How much one chooses to do to prevent exposure to our paints is entirely up to each individual, but common sense and sensible research required to avoid falling prey to exaggerated fears. It is my understanding that in Germany (and perhaps other areas in Europe) one can no longer buy LW unless you can demonstrate you are a professional artist (whatever that means) which is ironic, since so much of our tradition comes from that part of the world.

Having said all that, I personally recommend anyone who paints with even the most benign materials arrange for a heavy metals test ever 5 or 10 years just to see if there is something to be concerned about. And only purchase properly labels paints that follow ASTM guidelines. Otherwise you have no idea what is under the cap.

Thomas Kitts
http://wwwthomaskitts.com
http://www.thomaskitts.blogspot.com

jeff said...

From my observation and what I've read about Sorolla he did not seem to use what one would consider a limited palette. It seems that he used a full the gambit of cadmium's
and up to about 15 colors when he worked out of the studio. His work sure does speak to the use of high chroma pigments.

As to the Zorn palette, it's interesting how this subject brings up so much emotion or very concrete opinions. One could easily say Zorn used Cobalt blue being that he had so many tubes of it in his studio. He did have 17 tubes of one color which seems odd to me that he did not intend to use it. Of course he might have been one of those who just bought in bulk. One never knows do one...

I've read that Ivory Black in Zorn's day was a lot bluer than it is today. Which would account for those nice greens and blues he painted. Who knows, it's an interesting subject but personally I like using a good range of high and low chroma hues.

Thomas Kitts said...

Jeff, I stand corrected in my earlier statement that Sorolla used a limited palette. I appreciate your correction. For more info, check this link out:

http://www.sovek.com/publications/articles/sorolla

A wonderful overview of Sorolla's use of color that is new to me.

I speculate as you have, that ivory black may have had a distinctly cooler cast than what we commonly see today, but couldn't say so with authority. However, I can say that the manufacturing of ivory black (a.k.a, bone black) in the past was a rather variable process and the color temperature and purity of the end product changed significantly, depending upon the bone and waste ivory used, and the temperatures reached to char them, and amount of oxygen and time introduced into the equation.

So if someone today is interested in experimenting (in theory) with the Zorn palette I'd recommend that they substitute the coldest black they could find for our modern Ivory black, if only to accentuate the blue and greens that can be mixed. I've used both and a cooler black definitely made a difference.

Thomas Kitts
http://wwwthomaskitts.com
http://www.thomaskitts.blogspot.com

My Pen Name said...

I've read that Ivory Black in Zorn's day was a lot bluer than it is today.
robert doak (brooklyn paint maker) makes a colbolt blue-black which is pretty good. He also makes authentic ivory black (made from discarded antique ivory, legal)

DavidStill said...

I'm not going to contribute much to the discussion, just give an observation. The painting of the actor Coquelin Cadet, third picture from the bottom in this post, is not at all that warm in the flesh, it is much more neutral - and it's delicious to look at.

Tancredi Valeri said...

The following is from the auto-biography of Berta Wilhelmson, Carl Wilhelmson's wife. She studied under both Wilhelmson and Zorn in "Konstnärsförbundets målarskola," which was started in opposition to the Academy in Stockholm, and run along the principles of the Parisian ateliers libres. A small group of the foremost independent artists in Sweden at the time taught there: in addition to Wilhelmson and Zorn, Pär Hasselberg, Richard Bergh, Tegerström and Carl Larsson. Tuition was free, and the students only had to pay a small fee to help cover the studio rent and model fees. Men and women worked side by side from the model for the first time in Sweden.

"Zorn as a teacher would be worth a chapter in itself; he had his own ideas, even as a pedagogue. Overall, one might say that he - unlike Carl Wilhelmson, who tried to adapt to his students' individuality - tried to impose his own one the students. Zorn's flesh-palette consisted of five colors: black, white, light ochre, dark ochre and vermilion. Black and white were used to mix the cool tone needed to contrast the last three warm colors. Another one of his ideas was that the students were not allowed to draw first, but had to paint directly, which we thought was immensely difficult. As tools, we were to use a broad brush for the lights and another broad brush for the darks. The half-tones were brushed together with a third brush.
Zorn hated Cobalt blue."

Tancredi Valeri said...

According to that account, Zorn used two ochres, a light (yellow ochre) and a dark (brownish ochre). Also, B. Wilhelmson describes this as Zorn's flesh palette. In other words, it's possible that he used some other colors for his figures in landscapes - like a chromatic green.

Tancredi Valeri said...

@ Matthew Innis: maybe Odd Nerdrum uses a limited palette now, but when I studied with him he used a much more extended palette, that included ultramarine violet, green umber as well as several yellows and reds..

Thomas Kitts said...

Tancredi, you raise some interesting points and I take your references at face value. It is correct that ochre (and all other earth colors) can come in a wide range of colors, enough to go from a reddish to greenish bias, and for both colorants to bear the same name would confuse anyone trying to clarify the matter.

Wouldn't be the first time either. Divining any material used by an artist from the past can quickly become a guessing game. For example, at different times in history, and geographical regions, "linen" has been used as a term for a woven cloth made from flax, northern flax (which is different from southern), cotton, burlap, and even hemp. So saying any particular artist preferred to use 'linen' over another fabric support isn't as informative as one might think today.

It is entirely conceivable that Zorn used several ochres ranging from the red to the green.

Thomas Kitts
http://wwwthomaskitts.com
http://www.thomaskitts.blogspot.com

Tancredi Valeri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tancredi Valeri said...

Well, according to his student's account, he used one "light ochre" ("ljusockra") and one "dark ochre" ("mörkockra"). I interpret "light ochre" to be the same as what is today called "yellow ochre." I bought a tube of "mörkockra" at an art supplies store in Sweden, and it is a medium-value brown, similar to the tones in the hair, chest of the girl who is washing her self in this painting:
http://www.bukowskis.com/uploaded_images/0586/464

Thomas Kitts said...

Tancredi, unfortunately the link you posted gave a 'page not found error'. Can you try posting it again, or use another?

I'd love to know if there is (or was) a shift in hue between the light and dark ochres you specifically mention. There almost always is whenever a change of value is present. Such subtle hue-shifts become more salient when working with a limited palette, which is one of its inherent charms. It's very much like placing a series of closely-related but different grays next to each other. When there is so little primary or secondary hue present in a mixed color the distinction between various warms and cools appear more pronounced. Which describes Zorn exactly.

Can you offer more detail?

Thomas Kitts
http://wwwthomaskitts.com
http://www.thomaskitts.blogspot.com

Tancredi Valeri said...

Try this, Thomas:

http://www.bukowskis.com/auctions/562/85-anders-zorn-sondagsmorgon

Tancredi Valeri said...

or this: http://www.bukowskis.com/uploaded_images/0586/4646/IT213724_fullsize.jpg

James Gurney said...

Tancredi, thanks for those links to the big files, and thanks EVERYBODY for all the helpful insights. This is why I love doing the blog. I learn just as much as you all do.

Thomas Kitts said...

Tancredi:

I echo James' appreciation for the large Zorn file. If you have any more of them to share I'd appreciate it if you would either post links to them here, or send them to my email, which may be access at either my website or blog (found below).

The painting you linked to was not a Zorn I recognized -- nothing unusual about that -- but being able to look that closely at his edge work raised two questions for me I hope you can answer.

Do you know if Zorn used any calcite in his paint? There are edges which look rather translucent they make me wonder. We know that Velasquez worked calcite into his paint to expand the warm and cool range of his limited palette and that is one of the reasons many of V's thicker passages seem, well translucent. (And, some saponification of the oil film may be an additional contributing factor as well, but not enough to explain all of the transparency, or finely tuned cool/warm passages.)

And since you seem familiar and knowledgeable about Zorn's palette, do you know if was he had predominately used a lead white, or something else? He was painting during a time of transition, as it comes to whites and oil paints.

Your thoughts and links would be appreciated.

Thomas Kitts
http://wwwthomaskitts.com
http://www.thomaskitts.blogspot.com

Thomas Kitts said...

Correction:

I meant to say

"and that may be one of the reasons many of Z's thicker passages seem, well translucent."

and not...

"and that is one of the reasons many of V's thicker passages seem, well translucent."

My apologies if that confused anyone.

Thomas Kitts
http://wwwthomaskitts.com
http://www.thomaskitts.blogspot.com

Amylee said...

So greaaat !!! I love the one with two girls !!!

Emiliya Lane said...

The painting with the girls, called "The Misses Solomon" is a watercolor and still a pretty limited palette but include ultramarine and yellow. I just gave a class on a Zorn Palette and we painted in those 4 colors - It was sensational and eyes opening - I would never imagine that warm/cold constant placement will make gray appear so blue and ochre mixed with black appeared green - I'm going to paint in this palette for a while , but will definitely use some blue or green for accentes, exactly what Zorn used to do.
Love to all - Emiliya Lane

Marius said...

the art school i'm attending now has students always use the limited zorn palette before moving on to full color in any introductory painting class. i'm only just now learning the reason why.

Thomas Kitts said...

I am curious, Marius. In your own words, why? How did using the Zorn palette help you learn to paint?