These are some of the portraits I’ve done recently. Palette wise I have pretty much opened myself to everything now:
Here’s an old Zorn palette one:
A few notes:
The first three paintings are supposed to be gesture studies. I obviously overworked.
On the other hand, spending more time designing the background makes the process more interesting and the painting more finished. I like that.
Managing an open palette did distract me from better value control and cost more subtlety in skin tone.
I am thinking a two-step approach to improve: first spending more time preparing the palette – premixing most of the colors like I did with the Zorn palette; and then use a timer to push for a more gestural result. Two hours? Three? 🙂
It’s been a while since I did any master studies, and luckily the Watts’ program forced me to catch up. Here are some of the facial features I copied recently:
Eyes – Fechin
Nose – Rembrandt
Lips – Leyendecker
Ear – Bouguereau
A few notes:
The reference photos I used are provided by Watts Atelier, and some of them are not very close to the original. For example, I believe the last one is from William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905)’s Portrait de Gabrielle Cot. The original painting is high on realism. This doesn’t really affect the study though.
The most difficult thing I found is to re-create the texture, which is achieved by either manipulating the surface (Fechin) or brush strokes (Rembrandt). In the former case, it’s hard to guess how the manipulation was done. As for Rembrandt, it’s a laboring buildup that can’t be achieved in a few hours. For now, I am still focusing on the basics. Texture and brush strokes are like signatures. They are very personal and take long time to form.
I find choosing a topic and taking a small portion of the masterpiece to study is more effective than copying a whole painting. I also like the exposure to different styles. Bouguereau and Leyendecker are completely new to me and I find the highly stylized approach from the latter very refreshing.
2022 for me is not only moving on from the beloved Zorn palette, but also a broadening of the subject matters. The plan is to keep practicing portrait and still-life, with an emphasis on loosening up and becoming more gestural. Meanwhile, I will add landscape and later figures to the learning schedule. For medium, oil is the focus for now, but I’d like to do more watercolor sketches with or without ink.
Landscape is not a particular interest of mine, but for years, I used it as a check-mark to see if I have made any progress in techniques. After doing other subject matters for a while, I would attempt a few landscapes to see if I feel more confident and comfortable. It never did!
It took me some time to figure out that apart from value control, the key to a successful landscape painting is shape design. To deliver a believable tree, on surface you have more leeway than doing a portrait, but the lack of definitive guidance (the shape of an eye, a nose etc.), you need to come up with your own. That freedom can be a curse.
Looking above, it suddenly hits me that before doing trees, it might be a good idea to practice more bearded and hairy portraits first! 😉
Zorn is not the only limited palette used by artists. Well-known landscape artist Scott L. Christensen stayed with lemon yellow, cadmium red, ultramarine blue and white for many years, and his method has many followers. Presidential portrait artist Mark Carder teaches a palette of 5 colors, permanent alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow pale, french ultramarine, titanium white and burnt umber. Karen Blackwood painted her award winning coastal sceneries mainly with alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow pale, ultramarine blue, titanium white and viridian.
It’s not hard to see that all these are some versions of the primary colors. Replacing Zorn’s ivory black with Ultramarine and yellow ochre with a brighter yellow allows a more chromatic and less muted approach to painting.
Using a limited palette doesn’t mean you can’t use other colors. The above mentioned artists, Zorn included, all supplement their palette whenever necessary. Limiting color choices is to create harmony and in training, helps us focusing more on values. Eventually, we need to listen to the painting itself for what color comes in.
I have been staying with Zorn for months now, and it serves well for portrait painting. As I moving on to more still life and floral paintings, I began adding more colors to my palette. Zorn is still my starting point and foundation for each painting. Here are some recent exercises from my Watts classes:
Still homework from Watts, burnt umber pick out, burnt umber and white, phthalo-blue, black and white respectively.
I like MDF board covered with canvas better than MDF board with gesso, because it’s more absorbent. On gessoed board, the paint takes longer to settle which can be frustrating. However, if you like the super smooth and realistic look, board it is.
I need to learn how to take photos of oil paintings. 😉
After some deliberation, I signed up for Watts Atelier‘s online program in July. The program has a drawing and a painting part, and both start with the basics. There are video demos, handouts, and homework to turn in. It is probably good enough for the money even if you just watch Jeff Watts doing the demos, but you don’t want to skip anything to do it right. That is to say, it is not a small commitment.
Here are a couple of paintings from the Phase I Portrait and Phase I Still Life homework:
A few notes:
In Phase I, the painting routine starts with a single color, burnt umber, progress to two colors, burnt umber and white, and then 3 colors, phthalo-blue, black and white.
I will go back to Zorn in Phase II.
I sometimes wonder if I will become one of those forever learners: keep taking classes and never become a standalone artist. I feel so comfortable following a routine and not to think what to do next. On the other hand, it’s not like I have nailed the skill part already. So this is an experiment. Let’s see if the intensive training at Watts would eventually set me free by building confidence through skills.
Watts has some gouache courses but no watercolor. Jeff once said many amateurs started with watercolor, but it is actually a most challenging medium to excel in. I do feel I see value better and have more control over shape and edges with oil. I still hope to apply whatever I am learning to watercolor. It is such an expressive medium.
The more I learned about anatomy and head drawing, the more I am afraid of making mistakes, and the tighter my paintings become. Especially in watercolors, things were all under control (to the extend of my ability of course). They rarely just happened. The recent Draftsmen podcast mentioned how as a student, one learns and memorizes everything, and later forgets everything to become an artist. Hehe, we’ll see.
Quasi Zorn is 1) when I realized that I didn’t have ivory black and cadmium red in watercolor and replaced them with neutral tint and pyrrole red; and 2) when I couldn’t decide if the white of the paper counts or I should use the titanium white. The paper white doesn’t help in mixing colors, but the titanium white turns everything too opaque. I will keep digging and meanwhile order some new colors!
I just realize that I almost skipped the entire month of May. Well, I have been painting and taking online lessons from New Masters Academy, Watts Atelier, and Sentient Academy. The art world is online! (There is a potential danger of being overwhelmed with too many good stuffs though 😂.)
I have continued working on portrait and oil with the Zorn palette (I talked about it here). There are still a lot of the basics about the oil medium that I need to grasp, such as keeping my paint clean, using layers, being mindful about brushstroke economy etc. These skills directly affect how far one could push the range of the Zorn palette. As muted as it is, there is drama to be laid out.
The last piece is a bit too much fun. I used Gamsol to dilute my paint and put on a thin layer of background in the beginning. Too much of it makes the paint “watery.” Normally I would wipe it off or wait for it to dry. This time instead, I added more to see what would happen. And wow! It ran down with all those interesting patterns! I don’t know if the piece was ruined or what – it’s a practice painting anyways, but it made me curious about what else this medium could do! 😉
Anders Zorn (1860 -1920) was a great Swedish artist well-versed in watercolor, oil, etching and sculpture. He not only left behind many beautiful artworks, but also a unique palette. As shown above, the Zorn palette consists of only four colors, commonly described as ivory black, titanium white, yellow ochre and cadmium red. Did Zorn really paint with only these colors? Many artists don’t believe so, but the four colors probably served as the backbone of his approach. Zorn believes such a limited palette helps achieving a coherent portrayal of light. Nowadays, some art schools use Zorn palette as a transition from grisaille to full palette painting.
The choice of colors seems odd for me at first. Coming from watercolor, I almost never used white, and used black only in the form of ink, mainly for line work. It’s quite a shock to me to find out that the ivory black, cad red and ochre are in fact a muted version of the primary colors, and the white, as the coolest color in the set, plays big role in controlling the temperature of mixtures we derive.
Here are some exercises I did with the Zorn palette. They are not finished paintings, but a part of my continuous efforts in portrait painting and experiments to find out the potential of this limited palette:
A few notes:
Zorn is not a “pretty” palette, but some of the “muds” you see in my paintings are due to my poor ability to keep my brushes clean, or a lack of assertiveness in my strokes. Not his problem! 🙂
Since it is not a “pretty” palette, the approaches have to be value based, and it’s a great exercises of control in that sense. You can also practice this method with gouache.
I got conflicting information on whether ivory black is considered a warm or cool black, but I think it doesn’t matter. It is less overwhelming than mars black and therefore more versatile. It makes beautiful green, brown, and blue with the rest of the colors.
White is the only true cool in this set, and some artists use lead white, which is probably less overpowering than titanium. I couldn’t find lead white and titanium white works fines if you don’t use it too aggressive and too early.
Apart from cad red, you can also use Vermilion or brick red.
I do see artists adding blue to the black, use a chromatic black, adding a different shade of red, etc. As a practice, I’ll keep the painting within the simple version of these four colors and focus on values and consistency in atmosphere. Fun is the next step.