Experimenting with the Zorn palette.

Mar 22, 2020Paintings2 comments

This is going to be all about painting with a limited palette. It’s something that I’ve sort of tried before and it’s a fantastic way of focussing the mind on what you are trying to create. However, whenever I’ve tried it in the past, I’ve always sort of made sure that the colours that I’ve selected would give me basically the colours that I wanted, but this experiment was totally different.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but there is a palette of colours that was famously used by the Swedish artist, Anders Zorn (18 February 1860 – 22 August 1920). It consists of just four colours – yellow ochre, ivory black, vermilion and titanium white. Zorn was primarily a portrait painter and this particular selection of colours has been used many times since, by artists all over the world, to create amazing portraits. I, however, decided that I would try my hand at a small landscape, just to see how it would work out for me, being restricted in such a fashion and here is the result.

As I was experimenting, I thought I would start out working in acrylics on a 5”x7” canvas board, so I set about blocking everything in. It’s funny, but in some ways it was like learning to paint all over again. Over the years we get used to our setup don’t we. I have colours that I can mix to get them to do anything that I want them to do and I really don’t even have to think about it. Suddenly I was forced to experiment to see what would happen when I mixed the four pigments in different proportions. I found myself searching more for tones than for colours and once everything was blocked in I left it for a while to give my eyes a rest. When I came back into the studio it was dead!

I have never been happy with acrylics: they just don’t do it for me. I find them flat and totally unresponsive and, maybe because I have worked so long in watercolours, I hate the way that they dry darker. Over the years I have tried to love them, but in the end I have to admit that me and acrylics will never be besties. That said the composition was coming together and there was definitely something to work with. So the answer? Four blobs of oil paint and a small blob of Liquin. Suddenly I was happy again.

gInterestingly the oils produced much better tones when I mixed them together and before long my brush was happily dancing over the surface of the painting and it was beginning to revive. In the end it was an interesting experiment and as a small study it’s fine. Would I use the Zorn palette again? I may try a portrait and see how I get on. As for landscape, well I may try again but replace the black with payne’s grey, which has a greater blue content and see what difference that makes. I’ll let you know how I get on. 

The subject of this painting is taken from photographs that I took a few weeks ago in Betws-y-Coed in North Wales. It is a view that I have painted in autumn and now in winter. A few days before this the country had been hit by two storms in the matter of a week and the River Llugwy was a fierce torrent as it made its way over the rocks. This particular view is looking downstream from the Pont-y-Pair bridge. 

I know that there is a lot of talk always around the subject of painting from photographs, but in a situation like this I can’t see anything wrong with it. Situations like this are short lived, often we experience scenes and places when we are not in a situation to paint them from life or sit and make detailed sketches. In that case what is wrong in taking detailed studies to preserve the moment to work from later. In the end what matters is that you create a great painting.


  1. Dave Wilkison

    I love your work and have followed you since finding you painting people’s Volkswagens. I am enjoying your new website. Thanks, Dave

    • stebir1

      Thanks for your lovely comment Dave. Much appreciated.


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