Sunday, December 5, 2010

Making Zorn's Palette Work

I had a call regarding the use of Zorn's palette by adding other pigments.  The basic idea is to get everything out of the limited three colour plus white palette.  Of course you are the artist, so you can do whatever you want.  Using the limited palette by itself is a great learning experience.  It helps you understand colour and colour theory, and how to mix and place the colours.  So lets look at some ways to make the colours work for you.  The basic palette is Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, and Vermillion.  Vermillion being toxic I am using Cad Red Light.

Here is a colour chart showing the combinations of colours from the palette with a few values obtained by adding white.

Basic Zorn Combos

Using these three pigments as primaries to mix secondary colours you can see that red plus yellow gives orange (muted since yellow ochre is low in chroma).  Red plus black gives a range of violets (muted since we used black).  Yellow plus black gives a muted green.  You can further the exercise to get muted tertiaries by mixing the secondaries.  Painting with this muted array will discipline you to think about values, chroma and paint application.

But wait, there is more.  Much more.  Impressionists and colour theorists showed us that placing colours next to other colours gives the effect called simultaneous contrast.  For example, if you surround light grey patch of colour with a darker yellow field of colour, the grey will take on a violet cast.  That is it will appear somewhat violet.  So, if you put some grey next to a colour field, the grey will appear to be the complement of the surrounding colour field.  An orange field will cause the grey to look blue, and a red field will cause it to look green.  Since there is no blue on this palette, voila, there it is!

Here are a few examples of this simultaneous contrast.

Colour Placement Samples

Using the complements then you can emphasize the colour in question by placing its complement nearby.  Or even some of the complement in the colour next to the colour in question.  So, if you want the painting to appear higher in chroma you can cheat it up this way.

In your painting you will have to put in the time to get the feel of the possibilities.  To help short circuit the learning curve I highly recommend you play with the colours on your palette.  Just mix away and experiment.  Spend some time on the palette before jumping in to a painting.  Here is a recent example of mine.  Look for examples of paint application used to get colours to appear.

One Up One Down, 11x14, Oil on Canvas


  1. Very helpful. Now I don't have to tear my hair out, wondering what to do with the enormous tube of ivory black paint I bought. :P Can't wait to start playing around with color.

    ~ Miquela

  2. Really great explanation. Thanks for posting this!