Saturday, January 02, 2010

Exploring Limited Palettes

Anders Zorn, a Swedish painter and contemporary of John Singer Sargent, was reputed to have painted many of his protraits using just these 4 colors: white, black, yellow ochre and vermillion. In 2009, I began exploring this palette in my "Open" figure/portrait sessions. The model for this session had huge blue eyes, and it was a challenge to make her eye appear blue, without using any blue paint.


innisart said...

How do you like the palette? Are you happy with the colors you can produce? Do you think the (very) limited palette frees you up in other ways, considering there are fewer colors to consider when mixing?

Hope you are well (and warm). Happy New Year!

Karen Winslow said...

Hi Matthew, Yes, I really enjoy experimenting with this and other limited palettes. First, I take all of the colors and test the limits. In other words, before I begin painting, I mix every possible variation in value scales to give me my parameters, so I know what to expect. I know what these colors will do and how they will react. When I begin painting the model, I use the color relationships and value relationships to produce an overall impression of color, form and light.

Also, it expands my appreciation of how tone and mass can make up for any want of color, and it keeps the painting harmonized.

Happy New Year to you too! :D

Erin said...


It's been great to see your blog updates. During our time is class I feel like our interactions are "all about me" so it's nice to see your process documented. And, your web presence is how I found you in the first place. I suspect it really is good marketing.

I know that you have spent a fair amount of time working with the Zorn palette. Is there another limited palette that you have worked with as consistently?


Karen Winslow said...

Hi Erin,

Yes, I am a lazy blogger. So, to make up for my huge gap in posting, I have just added tons of posts to give you a whirlwind review of what I painted, taught, exhibited and discovered in 2009. If you keep going back down the blog and further, you will see. The Zorn palette was a personal challenge and a really fun discovery for me in 2009.

When you come in my studio, you know I will see a huge glass mixing palette, and that is where I amuse myself trying out and mixing all sorts of small, chosen sets of pigments. I am particularly interested in "flesh" colors, since I am doing the "Open" figure/portrait sessions , but I also play around with variations of my "landscape" palette. It is fun to make new discoveries and try new things.

Basically, though, for the "flesh" palette, I substitute different yellows and reds, along with the white and black. Sometimes, I try just earth colors. So, I might use yellow ochre, terre rosa and burnt umber. If I expand that, I might add raw umber and yellow ochre light (or lead tin yellow). Sometimes, I use cadmiums, so I would substitute a cadmium yellow and a cadmium red medium. There are endless possibilities and so much to learn.

I guess, what I am saying, is that I try different things to avoid falling into a "formula". I hope this helps.


Karen Winslow said...
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jeff f said...

Hi Karen,
Wonderful portrait!

I hate to say this but there is no concrete evidence that Zorn used the so called "Zorn palette". Even though he painted a self portrait with this limited palette, it seems that was more about his bravado then what he painted with.

At the time of his death he had over 200 tubes of paint in his studio and of those I think 15 to 20 of them were Cobalt blues. He also had a lot of Ultramarine blue as well. Two types of Vermilion and a host of other colors. The other interesting thing is apparently the Ivory Black they used in that period was a lot bluer than what we have now. I found that mixing up a blue black helped when I was experimenting with this palette.

Personally I like an earth based palette for flesh. The one Marvin Mattelson uses seems to be most sensible. I also agree with him that Cadmium Reds are not very good for flesh tones.

Happy New Year!

Karen Winslow said...

Hi Jeff, Yes, I am aware that Anders Zorn had tubes of cobalt and ultramarine blue in his studio. The fun thing for me, in using just the white, black, vermillion and yellow ochre, was trying to get the illusion of blue, without actually using blue, and it worked. I don't think this would work if I were painting outdoors in Vermont in the summer. I would certainly need a good blue and probably a more vibrant yellow to make those summer greens. So, as long as the model isn't wearing blue or some green that is out of reach of these 4 colors, they work pretty well for painting an illusion of light on flesh. The painting of Priscilla wearing the cap in the next post was also painted just using those 4 colors.