Category Archives: Oil

The Zorn Palette Experience

Anders Zorn, Self Portrait With Model, 1896
Anders Zorn, Self Portrait With Model, 1896

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.

Focusing on Portraits

I have been more and more focusing on portrait painting in oil recently. Neither do I have the intention to become a portrait artist, nor do I want to switch my main medium to oil. It’s a practical choice. With portrait, I don’t need to spend much time choosing subject matters and thus narrowing on technique. There are plenty free references online, and there’s always the option of a mirror. Plus, it’s easier to find more comprehensive oil classes from online than other painting mediums.

Since last fall, I have taken three portrait classes. The format is similar – the teacher demoed in class, you did your painting at home and submit online for critique. In retrospect, the painting styles I was shown are quite different.

The first one was with an extremely talented young artist, Kailun Qu. Kai painted in alla prima style, fast, spontaneous, and effortless (seemingly). He gave effective critics without reservation, something I’ve been looking for for years. Here’s one of the portraits I did for the class:

Portrait, oil on paper, fall 2020

The next artist I studied with is almost the opposite of Kai. Renowned figurative artist Joseph Todorovitch held a 5 week workshops online, with 4 hours each week. The 20 hours were dedicated to one painting, and in the end he’s not done. Later we received 8 more hours’ demo. Take a look here and you’ll understand why the labored approach is fully justified. It’s quite surreal to witness the birth of a masterpiece, but I have to admit a couple of weeks into the workshop I realized this is way above my weight class. I didn’t spend even half of that many hours on my version:

Alexandra, 20 x 24 in, oil on panel, February, 2021

The most recent class is from Watts Atelier, Portrait in Oil with Ben M. Young. Watts has all sorts of art classes all year long, and is more focused on basic skills. You can choose to audit or participate in the class, and the feedback worths every penny. Here’s one of the class homework:

Portrait, oil on panel, Feb, 2021

The good thing about online classes is that if you pay for the critique, it’s not just a verbal feedback. The instructor could easily paint over digitally to show exactly what he meant. Plus you get to keep a video version and therefore the ability of constant review. I will repeat some of these classes on my own several times to get the most out of them, and probably take a few more from Watts. For the time being, that’s the plan.

Hopefully later on I could carry the techniques I learn this way onto other subject matters and even different mediums.

Pairs (IV) and a New Thing for Me

My painting journey started with watercolor, and on the way, I also picked up acrylic and gouache. In other words, all water medium. Part of the reason I never tried oil is that I have more than enough art materials at home already, and I doubt I could ever use them up. Another part is that, I thought acrylic is the modern replacement of oil, and it could do everything oil can do.

Over the years, I met more than a few artists attesting that oil and acrylic are not the same at all. I started to wonder if I should give it try. A few weeks ago I attended a free lecture at University Art by an artist representing Williamsburg Oils (now part of Golden), and received some free colors. Well, I shouldn’t waste them, should I?

I dug out my very first acrylic landscape, and did a simplified copy of it in oil. Here they are:

Seascape, acrylic on canvas board, 12×16 in, 2015 (?)
Seascape, oil on paper, 9x12in, Feb. 2020

A few notes:

  • The acrylic painting was varnished, hence the sheen.
  • The oil painting was done on acrylic/oil paper. I don’t know if that makes a difference for the outcome.
  • I only have a few oil colors to work with.

I LOVE how oil colors can be pushed around freely and mixed smoothly, even the next day! I do feel I have more control of precision with acrylic, but that could simply because I have no skill with oil at this stage. For now, I would love to try more landscapes or portraits with oil, but for more modern and abstract paintings, I will stay with acrylic. Also, if you work with collage and complicated textures and patterns, acrylic is probably much easier.