Brad Marshall and I spent a great deal of time considering the paintings at the Anders Zorn show at the National Academy Gallery in 2014. I came away with a new appreciation for Zorn’s virtuosity, especially in watercolor.
Zorn knew how to paint in the low, indirect light of the north. But he was never “known for using a palette limited to only four colors,” as one breathless advocate for the trendy Zorn Palette enthused. His paintings clearly say otherwise.
The so-called Zorn Palette uses bone black and yellow ochre, two of the most ancient pigments. It substitutes a cadmium red for cinnabar/vermilion (trading one toxicity problem for another) and titanium white for lead white.
It is simply a kind of limited palette, a variation on the earth tones used from prehistory forward. These were based in the red-black-yellow tones because the minerals are plentiful and easily dug out of the earth.
A pigment workshop in South Africa that is 70,000-100,000 years old contains a compounded pigment of ochre, bone and charcoal. By 40,000-25,000 BCE, rock art was being done with pigments from iron oxide, manganese and kaolin (clay). Rembrandt knew these colors by different names but they still formed the backbone of his palette. The same colors are used for figure painting today.
Michael Wilcox’s Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green makes the point that some of the best soft greens are made with yellow and black. This green is vivacious enough for skin tones, but it can’t handle all the hues in landscape or the built environment. For those, mineral blues (or their modern analogs) are necessary.
You can’t call this the Zorn Palette because he used them for skin tones—everyone did and does that. You can’t call it that because he painted with these colors exclusively—he didn’t. You just call it that because Anders Zorn burst into the modern consciousness with that 2014 show and his name lends gravity and freshness to an inconsequential idea.
Anders Zorn—the real painter, not the modern myth—used blues, greens and other high-chroma pigments, just as his peers Joaquín Sorolla and John Singer Sargent did. Had he been painting in the high-key 21st century, he might have used them even more. He was an innovator and not a follower.